Don’t Just Do It

codIn fact, don’t do it at all. Don’t simply open up areas so more fish can be caught. We have been here before and IMO, if fisheries managers get this wrong, we will not be here again, ever. I will not make a lot of friends in either the recreational industry or the commercial with this stance, but if it helps to save and perhaps rebuild groundfish stocks in the Gulf of Maine, it does not matter?

Recently I was reminded of a decision that the New England Fishery Management Council will be making in the upcoming months under the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment 2. Primary in that decision process is the opening or closing of areas that are deemed important to certain life stages of groundfish.

On one hand, if all species and all life stages are deemed critical, it is theoretically possible to close most of the Gulf of Maine to any fishing activity. That possibility is not exactly workable in the real world. At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that all areas can simply be opened and fish populations will be managed solely through quotas. Another unrealistic management scheme, IMO.

I should note that I support the use of quota management, but I think that managers have to have other tools in the box and need to use those tools. It is unrealistic to think that managers can meet the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act with just quota management. It is even more unrealistic when the population of the most desirable fish, the Atlantic cod, is at depressed levels. I believe that the current assessment for Gulf of Mexico cod has the population at 19 percent of its maximum sustainable yield. Since reference points have the tendency to creep lower and lower, that number is way below the potential level of a virgin or un-fished stock. Some would say that the assessment could be off as much as 50 percent. I buy that – which means we are looking at a stock that could just as likely be at 9 percent or at 28 percent of where it should be to reach a target that has been lowered over the years. Take your pick. In either case, business as usual is not the right direction.

Because of the dire straits that the commercial and party/charter groundfish fleets are in, the NEFMC has been under heavy pressure to allow mobile gear access to areas that have been closed for 20 plus years. Photographic evidence shows that these areas no longer look like the barren bottom that has been dragged countless times. Some of the areas have been protected simply because of the substantial structure found there. In any case, these areas have much higher value for groundfish as they have complex benthic fauna and a greater level of biodiversity. Some areas like Cashes Ledge and Ammen Rock resemble the benthic habitat from pre-mobile gear days. Their value is in the productive capability they have for groundfish and primarily cod. This is also true of areas within the western Gulf of Maine closure.

The major reason that I have heard for allowing access to these critical habitat areas, besides the desire to catch more fish, is that if these closed areas worked then the Gulf of Maine would be full of fish. That is not even anecdotal evidence. It is an assumption. I’ll take the other side of that coin and, using the same logic, say that without the closed areas, groundfish, primarily cod, would have collapsed 15 years ago.

To think that these closed areas have no value is absurd. Why do folks want to get into them, if they don’t have any fish in them? How is it that closed area management brought back Georges Bank haddock, if they have no value? Closed area management has treated the scallop industry pretty well.

Do I advocate for closing or keeping closed all the areas that have been put in place over the years for a variety of reasons. No, I do not. At a minimum, it is my feeling that in the Gulf of Maine the existing Cashes Ledge area should remain closed. I also think that a much larger chunk of the western Gulf closure than proposed in the omnibus amendment also should remain closed. These closures are the minimum that should be done, if there is any hope to restore Gulf of Maine cod.

Here is where I’ll get a few crosses burnt in the front yard. When I say closed, I mean closed to any gear capable of catching groundfish. I don’t believe that all fishing should be banned. I also think that there should be a mandatory review period, such as five years or maybe 10 with set criteria to review the area’s effectiveness. I don’t believe in
“set it and forget it.”

It is my feeling that we are critically close to the tipping point with Gulf of Maine cod, beyond which we can never rebuild this fishery. My fear is that the NEFMC is trying to manage a very different future by looking at the past. I’d hate to see a generation or two from now visiting the Massachusetts State House and viewing the iconic golden cod with a comment like, “What the heck kind of fish is that?’


"Rip" Cunningham, who owned, published and edited Salt Water Sportsman for 32 years, is also an accomplished writer and photographer. Cunningham has received several awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in such magazines as Field and Stream, Rod and Reel, Gray's Sporting Journal, Australian Boating and the Boston Globe Magazine. Among his many accomplishments, Rip was recognized as the Conservationist of the Year from both the International Game Fish Association, the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts, The Billfish Foundation and Federation of Fly Fishers. "I've earned a living from fishing, and I believe strongly that people with an interest in a given area should give something back,” he says. “It's rewarding every single day." Cunningham received his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA and his BA from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He has two grown children and four grand children and lives with his wife and hunting dogs in Dover, MA and Yarmouth, ME. When he's not fishing or working through the items on his wife's "honey-do" list, Cunningham does some hunting and skiing.

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