11 Years in the making, it’s time for get serious about the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment
No longer being on the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), I get to press my face to the glass and watch the yin and yang of what transpires as fisheries management. There is part of me that wants to say “masquerades” as fisheries management, but I am trying to become a little more PC. I used the yin and yang phrase in a talk at the Managing Our Nations Fisheries Conference in DC last spring and got reamed out for misusing it. I hope that doesn’t happen again, but I think I got the hang of it a little better. In Western culture, we most often think of it as opposites, which is most often associated with the natural world. Such as, the good and bad of fishery management. There is also the concept of it being complementary instead of opposing, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That is what fishery management should strive for. Building a resource base that has a greater value than the individual pieces. I fear that the current direction of groundfish management in New England is moving in the opposite direction. It is trying to make a pile of worthless little pieces.
This is being written after the NEFMC held its December meeting. The last day was dedicated to making decisions on the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment, which has been in the sausage maker for 11 years. It has been a complicated process to say the least, but somewhere in the middle the NEFMC decided to combine the process of habitat designation with a re-examination of all the groundfish closed areas. The idea was to have a comprehensive and coordinated plan for both of these areas. It makes sense to do it that way, but the reality is that it has gone very awry. I cannot help but believe that I am watching the systematic dismantling of groundfish management in the Gulf of Maine (GOM) and the very likely possibility that this area becomes like Atlantic Canada, where fishing for cod ceased 25 years ago and the stocks have yet to rebound.
This disassembling is being done at a time when the stocks are at an all-time low. Some blame it on environmental regime change that has caused the waters of the GOM to warm at an unprecedented pace. Others blame it simply on over fishing the primary stocks of cod and haddock. I believe it is a combination of those two major factors timed perfectly with an unprecedented explosion of seals along the New England coastline.
The net result is that groundfish quotas have been sharply cut and this is impacting all the user groups. Many in the recreational party/charter fleet and commercial users are going or have gone out of business. These are very tough time. Trust me, I get it. Anyone with half a brain gets it, but that does not mean that abandoning 20 plus years of conservation will solve the problem, either in the short term or the long term.
Some on the NEFMC advocate that they should not be managing habitat. Beside the fact that the Magnusson Stevens Act, which regulates marine fishing, requires that Councils manage habitat, it is common sense that you have to protect habitat. No habitat, no fish. It is that simple. Habitat comes in a variety of forms and is important to different life stages and species in a variety of ways. But areas of complex bottom with high levels of structure and benthic flora have the highest value. A number of these areas in the GOM have been closed to bottom-tending mobile gear and much of the previously impacted bottom has regenerated and increased in habitat value. A lot of the alternatives in the Amendment could open up all of this valuable bottom. It is ironic that some in the commercial industry see no value in having closed areas, yet they are at the front of the line to get the ability to go fish in these areas. Huh? There is only one reason they want to get in there and it does not take a rocket scientist to figure it out.
For the recreational groundfishing public, there is one area of greatest interest. It is the Western Gulf of Maine (WGOM) closed area. This has been closed to commercial groundfishing for both fixed gear and bottom-tending mobile gear for 20 plus years. It is the only reason that the party/charter fleet for groundfish is still in business. There are several alternatives that could eliminate or change the WGOM. In the coming weeks, I’ll highlight these alternatives and also give readers some ways to comment on them.
As of today’s meeting, the NEFMC postponed any selection of preferred options until the January meeting. After that meeting, public hearings will be scheduled and public comment will be requested. We should have a better handle on where this might end up. For those who want to dig into it, there is a lot of information on the NEFMC website under the Habitat section. Open the September or December meeting discussion documents and be prepared to read.