By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown
By the early 1990’s, decades of heavy fishing had depleted several of New England’s important fish species, including cod, haddock, pollock and flounders (collectively referred to as ‘groundfish’). Fishermen had been catching fish faster than they could reproduce and had degraded fish habitats by dragging nets. To help rebuild New England’s fish populations, managers established several areas where fishing with any gears capable of catching groundfish species were prohibited. These areas were designed to protect both young, immature fish and large breeding adults. Later, in the early 2000’s, several areas both within and outside these closed fishing areas were designated as habitat closures, designed specifically to protect vulnerable habitats from all destructive bottom fishing gears.
Over the last 10-20 years, these protected areas have provided important safe havens for many species and have allowed previously degraded ocean habitats to recover. These protected areas have complex bottom structures and living communities that include kelp, mussel beds, sponges, and more. These areas often contain larger and older fish compared to fished areas. Since larger fish produce many times more eggs than small fish, these large fish are critical to helping populations rebuild1. Protected areas also help create a build-up of fish, which can swim into outside areas, and actually improve fishing there2.
These protected areas have provided many benefits to New England’s groundfish species, including Georges Bank haddock, Acadian redfish, pollock, and white hake–which have all recovered from previously depleted states. They have also benefited other species, like scallops–whose populations are thriving– and many marine mammals.
Unfortunately, despite these positives, New England fisheries remain in trouble. Some groundfish, like Atlantic cod and yellowtail flounder, remain deeply depleted. Recently, scientists estimated that Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine is at a mere 3 to 4% of a healthy abundance level. And the Atlantic cod population in Georges Bank is not fairing much better. Rising ocean temperatures are further threatening New England’s fish populations. Record high temperatures in New England have caused fish to retreat to cooler waters, and can affect fish growth, reproduction, and survival3. In recent years, the federal government has had to fork over millions of dollars to help struggling New England fishermen, who have not been able to catch enough fish to make a living.
New England fisheries are now at a critical juncture. There is considerable debate about how to fix New England’s fisheries—And specifically how to manage New England’s ocean habitats, as managers work on updating their habitat plan for the region.
The fishing industry has been pushing fishery managers to reduce the amount of protected areas [the protected areas that have benefited so many New England species and the fishermen too]. Why? Because they want to have more opportunities to catch fish, to reduce some of the economic burdens they face. They have also argued that many of these protected areas are no longer necessary because they were originally put in place to reduce fishing pressure on depleted species, and now fishing pressure is limited through species-specific catch limits.
New England fishery managers are apparently going along with this idea. Their proposed habitat plan that they released in October primarily includes options for reducing habitat protections4. In nearly all sub-regions, the options put forward are to keep the current protected areas as they are OR to replace them with smaller, patchier protected areas. The only sub-region where managers have proposed to add new protected areas is the eastern Gulf of Maine. Overall, New England could lose up to 70% of their protected areas.
Scientists have issued warnings about removing these long-standing protected areas. They have warned that these areas contain some of the last remaining old, large female fish and last remaining structurally diverse habitats in the region. Opening them up to fishing could un-do decades of progress and sink New England’s fisheries for good.
Recently, 138 marine scientists (including Carl Safina and Sylvia Earle) wrote to federal fishery managers that given the current state of some of New England’s fish species and the growing environmental threats they face, reducing New England’s protected areas is “highly unwise and unsupportable by today’s scientific understanding.”5
Scientists have encouraged fishery managers to instead focus on improving and expanding protected areas for New England’s species and habitats. They say if New England wants more fish, they must protect the places where fish grow, feed, and reproduce. Limiting catches is not enough. To have healthy fish populations, you need healthy ocean ecosystems. Scientists have also said protecting important fish habitats is crucial to helping fish cope with warming ocean temperatures and changing environmental conditions.
New England fishery managers have a history of not listening to these scientific warnings, and putting short-term economic interests over long-term conservation. This is largely why New England’s fisheries are in a current crisis6. Yet, they seem to be continuing down this path.
If New England really wants to fix their fisheries, they need to start listening to the scientists, re-think their habitat plan, and focus on long-term sustainability.
You can help by writing to federal fishery managers and urging them to enhance, not reduce, habitat protections in New England waters. Federal fishery managers are accepting comments on the proposed habitat plan through January 8th.