Habitat Protection Works Now and for the Future

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By Sean Cosgrove, Conservation Law Foundation, SCosgrove [at] clf.org

There is a big opportunity to extend and improve ocean habitat protections in the Omnibus Habitat Amendment (OHA) now under consideration at the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC). The big question is whether the NEFMC will bury its collective head in the practices and politics of the past, or look towards the very real needs of the present and future.

When you can look beneath the New England waves and see the effects of trawled and protected areas over decades, it’s clear that habitat protection provides for healthier fisheries and a more productive ecosystem. That’s exactly what Jon Witman, professor of biology at Brown University, has been doing since 1977. Witman’s research of sites across the Gulf of Maine, as highlighted on the front page of the Boston Globe last Sunday, shows that protection of habitat at Cashes Ledge from bottom trawling over the last 12 years has allowed the largest, deepest kelp forest along the eastern seaboard to provide important habitat for juvenile fish and large females.

This biogenic habitat not only includes the well-documented kelp forests that adorn its sharp peaks and the vast horse mussel beds, anemones and sponges that lie deeper along the rocky slopes, but also the boulder and gravel-strewn Fippennies Ledge and the undulating rocky habitat of Sigsbee Ridge and the Fifty-five Fathom Bunch.  The sides of these ridges and ledges slope down and transition to gravel beds, sand and finally the undisturbed mud basin that sits at the base of this extraordinary food web and powers its abundance.  All combined, the Cashes Ledge Closed Area offers better conditions for fish at all life stages than areas trawled over the same period.

Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) protection must also be maintained and improved in other areas of New England’s ocean. The Gulf of Maine has essential habitats in the Western Gulf of Maine, Jeffrey’s Bank, and in two newly proposed areas in Downeast Maine that must be protected. Georges Bank apparently continues to be considered the exclusive playground of the scallop fleet, but protecting the complex gravel and cobble habitats that run along the northern portion of the Bank from Canadian waters west, including the Northern Edge habitat area and critical herring spawning areas, would be a great start. Protecting a section of the Great South Channel that includes the northern area of the existing Nantucket Lightship Habitat Area and runs north to the federal waters off Chatham and east to the channel proper make good sense, as does protection for all of Cox’s Ledge.

With all of these incredible areas to consider, the emphasis that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) places upon protecting marine habitat for supporting healthy fisheries has never been more important for New England. Many stocks in our region have been overfished since the 1980s and their rebuilding has been delayed for years. Moreover, assessment after assessment reveals low productivity, poor recruitment and diminished size of groundfish in relation to age. Even though the MSA calls for Essential Fish Habitat updates every five years (see 50 CFR Sec. 600.815 (a)(7): (10)), New England’s EFH program has not been updated for over ten years – and that last effort was forced on the Council by the courts.

Marine scientists around the world have stressed the importance of protecting essential fish habitats from fishing gears, from European scientists looking at enhancing cod production in their North Atlantic waters to the National Research Council’s expert panel that looked recently at restoring overfished stocks and ocean productivity. The literature is clear—these areas can’t just be postage stamp tokens or small habitat museums. They have to be large areas and they have to be protected for long periods of time before they can fully recover.

Climate change, an event that NMFS Regional Director John Bullard has properly described as a challenge that humankind has never before faced, provides even more reason for the Council and NMFS to ensure meaningful action in the OHA. The decline of ocean ecosystem productivity in New England from decades of overfishing, gear impacts, and pollution is a tenuous starting condition to confront climate change, from which the New England region is particularly vulnerable. The protection of significant areas of New England’s ocean from bottom trawling may provide the best chance we have to help recover these historically depleted groundfish populations and weather the storms of a rapidly shifting ocean ecosystem. Think of it as getting in the best physical condition you can before a marathon.

But rather than moving deliberately to improve protection of Essential Fish Habitat and exercising precaution to protect large areas like other fishery management councils are doing, the NEFMC and even NMFS appear poised to promote a final Omnibus Habitat Amendment that will drastically reduce the extent of protected areas and allow trawling and other commercial fishing gear in areas that have served as refuge for innumerable species for nearly twenty years. The current proposals are headed so far in the wrong direction that Cashes Ledge would see 75% of the entire protected area reopened to trawling.

We will not likely see the return of the Atlantic cod in our lifetimes, but we can start the process now. In order to stop the decline of groundfish and not just let things get worse at a slower rate, both the Council and NOAA Fisheries need to take real action. The word we can use for this real action is “leadership.” Where can we find it?

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