Square One: New England Fishery Managers Trying to Un-do Decades of Protection

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

In the early 1990’s many New England groundfish species (e.g. cod, haddock, and flounders) collapsed from decades of overfishing. To help rebuild these populations, managers closed several areas to groundfish fishing. These areas were designed to provide protection for groundfish species and their habitats, protecting them from destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling.

Unfortunately, today several groundfish species are still struggling to recover. And in recent years, warming ocean temperatures have further threatened their populations. The most recent scientific population assessment for Atlantic cod, found that their abundance in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank is at just a fraction of sustainable levels – 7% in Georges Bank and 13-18% in the Gulf of Maine, indicating cod are not recovering like previously thought. Other New England groundfish, such as American plaice and some flounders, also remain at low abundances.

Now there is concern that are no longer enough fish left in New England waters for fishermen to catch. And because of the dire situation, this past September the U.S. Department of Commerce declared a “commercial fisheries disaster” off the coast of New England. The northeast congressional delegation is seeking $100 million in relief for the industry.

To help fishermen survive the economic crisis, New England fisheries managers are proposing to open some of the protected groundfish areas to fishing. They want to open up more than half of the currently closed areas. Managers believe this will help fishermen catch more fish, like haddock, pollock, and redfish, limiting some of the negative economic consequences from the likely reduced catches of other depleted species.

But opening up these protected areas could undo decades of progress.

The closed areas provide critical protection to many juvenile groundfish, including cod, haddock, and flounders. Plus, they also provide a refuge for adult groundfish. Closed areas often contain larger and older fish compared to fished areas. And since larger fish are capable of producing more eggs than small fish, they are critical to helping populations rebuild over time. There is also evidence that these closed areas help fishermen. A build up of fish inside the closed areas can “spill-over” to outside areas. Scientists have found that New England fishermen often fish just outside the closed areas, and these areas yield higher profits compared to other fishing grounds.  Removing these protections could mean the depletion of the last known abundant groundfish areas in the Northeast. And, it risks depleting species like cod to the point where they may never be able to recover.

These protected areas provide benefits to other species as well, such as scallops- another very valuable commercial resource.

Scientists also say that opening up these closed areas could put several marine mammals at risk. For instance, the Western Gulf of Maine closed area is known to provide important protection for harbor porpoises. So allowing fishing in this area could put porpoises in further danger – the Northeast gillnet fisheries for cod and haddock are already known to negatively impact harbor porpoise populations. There are also concerns about the potential impacts to the endangered North Atlantic right whale and the endangered humpback whale. Scientists warn that these impacts need to be studied before any areas are re-opened.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries scientists are currently considering the proposal by New England fishery managers to allow fishing in some of the protected groundfish areas.

You can help by telling the NOAA fisheries scientists to keep the protected areas in place!

Changing Planet

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Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.