The New England Fishery Management Council has reduced protections of highly sensitive areas in Georges Bank, on the continental shelf east of Cape Cod, and opened it to commercial scalloping. The vote comes after a 12-year-review of habitat protection measures in the Omnibus Habitat Amendment.
Approximately 10,000 square kilometers on Georges Bank, an important fishery area for Rhode Island fishermen, have been protected from fishing for more than 20 years.
Greg Cunningham, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Clean Energy and Climate Change program, said the council is now choosing to go with short-term economic benefits for clam and scallop fishermen, instead of choosing long-term protections for fish like cod and yellowtail flounder.
“Rhode Island ground fishermen will probably lose out in this equation at the end of the day,” said Cunningham. “They will lose out to the big business interests of the clammers and the scallopers.”
These areas in Georges Bank are important nurseries for Atlantic cod, whose population is at a record low, despite decades of regulations intended to replenish them.
Cunningham said the council took one step forward by setting habitat protections in Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine, but took two steps back by removing protections from a large area of the western Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, diminishing protected areas by nearly 60 percent.
“The reality is there will be a great deal of fishing effort, even in habitat protected areas,” said Cunningham.
“This comes at a very bad time for the fisheries on Georges Bank that are in bad shape,” added Gib Brogan, a fisheries campaign manager with Oceana. “They have suffered from chronic overfishing and the stocks of groundfish are overfished.”
The council heard testimony from fishermen who both supported and opposed the habitat protection changes.
Charles Raymond, a Masschusetts lobster fishermen, has been fishing in Georges Bank since 1978, said "if scallop dredges would go through this area through the summer and early fall, these female egg-bearing lobsters, their eggs, and their habitats would be damaged."
Some fishermen and council members recommended to table the issue and return to it in the near future.
"We need to put this into a follow on action and get it right," said council member David Preble, who said he didn't feel the council was ready to make a decision yet. "Georges Bank is too important. It's too important to the fisheries. It's too important to the habitat."
Other environmental advocates at the meeting say the federal government was sharply critical of this recommendation and spoke in favor of maintaining the existing protected areas. Advocates are hopeful federal fisheries managers will remain a strong voice for conservation as the process moves forward.
The federal government will review the regional council’s recommendations and open a public comment period, before making the final determination on these fishing regulations and habitat protections.
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