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Response to Carl Safina's Nat Geo "Ocean Views" Post on Closed Area Changes
Recent proposed changes to New England closed areas would benefit both habitat and fishing communities.

WASHINGTON (Saving Seafood) April 4, 2013 -- In his National Geographic “Ocean Views” post, “Square One: New England Fishery Managers Trying to Un-do Decades of Protection” (2/3), Carl Safina, author and founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, argues that proposed changes to marine protected areas will “undo decades of progress.”

In December, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) voted to approve Framework Adjustment 48 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan. This would allow plans that alter existing closed areas to go into effect this May, a year earlier than anticipated. If enacted, commercial fishermen will be able to apply for access to areas that were closed for reasons other than habitat protection.

This is one of multiple efforts to aid struggling fishermen under consideration by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in response to sharp reductions in quota allocations. NOAA has been clear that this action will be carried out in a way that “minimizes risk to habitat, spawning fish, protected species and fish stocks in poor condition.”

But Framework 48 is not just an economic aid. It is part of a decade-long effort by fishery managers and scientists to update the closed areas in Georges Bank. The larger part of this effort, the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment, which is planned to go into effect in 2014, incorporates new science and modified management actions to amend the closures in a way that will provide better habitat protection.

New Management Calls for Change

Both Framework 48 and the Omnibus Habitat Amendment are intended to make changes to “mortality” closures established nearly 20 years ago when fishery managers regulated fisheries by specifying where, when and how fishermen could fish. When fishery management in the Northeast changed to limit catch with quotas instead, these mortality closures no longer served that purpose. NOAA explains in Framework 48 that the Total Allowable Catch limits implemented in 2010 made the mortality closures redundant.

Addressing this redundancy benefits the ocean environment overall. In a 2011 analysis, the NEFMC Habitat Plan Development Team (PDT) concluded that altering the closed areas would ultimately lessen the impact of fishing on marine habitats.

“We find that for nearly all area and gear type combinations, opening existing closed areas to fishing is predicted to decrease aggregate adverse effects. For mobile bottom tending gears, which comprise nearly 99% of all adverse effects in our region, allowing fishing in almost any portion of the area closures on Georges Bank is estimated to substantially decrease total adverse effects from fishing.” (pg. 16)

With large sections of the ocean off limits, fishing effort has concentrated on open areas that have been regularly fished for almost 20 years. As a result, boats need to trawl for a longer period of time. Allowing access into productive fishing grounds enables fishermen to reach their allocation with less fishing – ultimately affecting less of the seabottom.  

The proposals in Framework 48 will only allow sector vessels into non-essential habitat closures. Vessels will not be permitted to fish in areas that are deemed to be essential habitats; an example of this is the Cashes Ledge kelp forest. Additionally, seasonal closures (including those that protect marine mammals and spawning groundfish) will remain in place. 

Incorporating Learned Benefits

This is not to suggest that the closures did not provide unexpected benefits apart from their original purpose to prevent fishing mortality. For example, the closings provided insights into new management and fishing techniques for the scallop industry.

Harvesters and scientists observed that scallops were more abundant and grew to larger sizes inside the closures. To capitalize on these benefits, scallopers partnered with NOAA and the NEFMC to enact “Rotational Area Management” for the entire scallop fleet. This approach restricts where and when scallop vessels operate, directing vessels to areas where fully grown scallops are located and keeping them away from areas abundant with undersized scallops.

Operating closures on a rotational basis, rather than maintaining permanently closed areas, has proven to yield a healthy scallop population. NOAA credits rotational management with bringing about a ten-fold increase in scallop populations compared to survey results from 1993.

Additionally, there is clear evidence that rotational closures are more beneficial to the scallop fishery than permanent closures. Dr. Deborah Hart, head of sea scallop research at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, wrote in 2005 that, “rotational closures, by increasing yield per recruit in addition to possible benefits from increased fertilized egg production, are more likely to improve scallop yield than permanent closed areas.”

By incorporating the benefits learned from permanent closures, rotational management stands out as a major success story for the fishery. According to NOAA’s Fish Watch, “the Atlantic sea scallop population is near record highs and the fishery operates at sustainable levels.”

Moving Forward

Framework 48 proposes to open the mortality closures a year earlier than the anticipated Omnibus Amendment to aid struggling fishing families.

In September, the U.S. Commerce Department declared a disaster in the Northeast groundfish fishery for 2013. Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank wrote, “despite fishermen’s adherence to catch limits over the past few years, recent data shows that several key fish stocks are not rebuilding.” Blank continued that the “anticipated revenue declines will greatly affect the commercial fishery.”

In May, allocation cuts of up to 77 percent will go into effect in the cod fishery. These devastating numbers follow an already tough year for cod fishermen. Currently, even the largest boats are laboring to reach up to a third of their allocation due to adverse weather, reduced stocks and changing water temperatures. Many fishermen are questioning if their businesses will be able to survive. 

For many, assistance from proposals such as those included in Framework 48 are their only chance at staying afloat. Still, managers remain cognizant of conservationists’ concerns for potential adverse environmental impacts. For that reason, the NEFMC and NOAA are moving forward with these economic relief measures while simultaneously ensuring that they continue to protect habitat.  

The suggestion that once modified, these areas would become a fishing free-for-all is hyperbolic. To mitigate any unforeseen environmental harms, NOAA will require sectors to apply and gain approval for access, seasonal closures will remain intact, and NOAA will retain the right to revoke access to these areas. NOAA is also considering mandatory monitoring on all fishing vessels inside of the closed areas.

Read the Carl Safina Ocean Views post here  

Read the proposed Framework Adjustment 48 here

More From Saving Seafood On Closed Areas:

ANALYSIS: Pew Environment Group Misleads Public on Habitat Closed Area Changes

ANALYSIS: Sylvia Earle Alliance Misleads Public on Habitat Closed Area Changes

ANALYSIS: Conservation Law Foundation Misleads Public on Habitat Closed Area Changes

ANALYSIS: NY Times Blog Post Misleads Readers on New England Habitat Closed Area Changes


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