New England ocean stewardship plans up for debate

Patrick Whittle
Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine – The federal government is close to enacting new rules about New England ocean habitat that could mean dramatic changes for the way it manages the marine environment and fisheries.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has been working on the rules for some 13 years and recently made them public. They would change the way the government manages the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank and southern New England waters, which are critical pieces of ocean for rare whales, unique underwater canyons and commercial fishermen.

The new rules would affect the way highly valuable species such as scallops and haddock are harvested, in part because it would alter protections that prohibit fishing for species in parts of the ocean. The proposal states that its goal is to minimize “adverse effects of fishing on essential fish habitat.”

The revamped rules are required by federal law, and are also necessary because some areas that are closed to fishing have been restricted since the 1990s and an update is needed, said Moira Kelly, a senior fisheries program specialist with the fisheries service.

“We can highlight the areas that are most vulnerable, and allow fishing to occur to successfully in areas that are less vulnerable,” Kelly said.

One of the most-debated pieces of the plan includes a provision that would open up the northern edge of Georges Bank to scallop fishing, which is not currently allowed there. It would also close the Great South Channel, which separates Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank, to the harvesting of scallops and clams and fish like cod, flounder and haddock.

Some environmentalists and have raised objections to the proposal, but also voiced support of the fact that it would protect areas for young cod to grow. New England’s cod population has plummeted, leaving regulators scrambling to come up with solutions to rebuild it.

“The areas that are being considered to reopen have been recovering for 20 plus years, and those areas have regained much of their ecological function,” said Gib Brogan, fishery campaign manager for Oceana. “To let destructive fishing gears into those areas will knock down that ecological function and cause harm to our ocean ecosystem.”

The proposal is called the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment. It is intended to bring the management of New England fisheries into compliance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs U.S. fisheries.

“It came at the end of a decade of discussion, it has been thoroughly vetted, there has been a great deal of scientific study,” said Robert Vanesse, executive director of industry advocacy group Saving Seafood. “It represents arguably the best compromise.”

The fisheries service is taking comments on the proposal through Dec. 5. It’s expected to issue a decision on the new rules by early January. The regulatory New England Fishery Management Council approved the plan in 2015.