Sunday, April 5, 2015


One of the hottest issues being debated right now in New England is the proposed creation of a Dedicated Habitat Research Area along the eastern border of Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, located off Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The proposal to create the research area, one of three such areas currently being contemplated, is contained in the New England Fishery Management Council’s Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2, a massive, five-volume document (not counting its seven appendices) that addresses a number of habitat-related issues.

Although the proposed Stellwagen Bank research area only takes up a few pages in the Amendment’s third volume, it may have generated more controversy, at least within the angling community, than all of the rest of the issues addressed in the Amendment, combined.

To understand why, it’s probably best to start by explaining what the proposed research area is, and what it is not.

The research area will be carved out of an existing area where trawls have long been outlawed, but hook-and-line fishing for cod and other groundfish is still permitted.

The purpose of the research area, as described in the Amendment, is to determine the impacts of various gear types on bottom habitat, how well such habitat can recover from such gear impacts under different scenarios, what natural disturbances impact such habitat and how the productivity of bottom habitat is impacted by various fishing gears.

As part of the research process, scientists would allow commercial fishing, almost certainly including trawling, to take place in places and for periods of time appropriate for various research projects.

The proposed research area is not a no-take marine protected area; fishing for pelagic species such as tuna and shark will not be affected by its creation.  Recreational fishing for cod and other groundfish will not be impacted in most of the area. 

However, in order to create a “control” area where the bottom will remain completely unfished, and provide a baseline that other, fished areas can be compared to, scientists have proposed creating a so-called “northern reference area,” of about 55 square miles, located toward the southern end of the research area, where no bottom fishing at all would be allowed (once again, pelagic fisheries would remain unaffected).

It’s not at all clear how many recreational boats regularly fish in the proposed reference area, nor is it clear what the impacts of closing the area to bottom fishing might be.  

As is all too often the case in fisheries issues, things got polarized pretty quickly.  The comments sent in to the New England Fishery Management Council, for and against creation of the research area, make it pretty clear that the opponents and proponents concentrated on their own concerns, and didn’t spend much time thinking about the other side’s issues.

Opposition to the research area, and particularly to the no-fishing northern reference area, was spearheaded by the local charter boat industry, which focused almost entirely on economic issues.  A form letter sent in by members of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association was typical, asserting that

“Charter customers and recreational fishermen spend millions of dollars to go fishing, supporting many local businesses.  This proposed closure clearly does not justify the negative socioeconomic impact on the recreational fishing sector…
“By proposing closure of one of the few productive areas remaining for this fishery, this plan targets a sector for business extinction.
By noting that the proposed “northern reference area” was “one of the few productive areas remaining” for the groundfish fishery, the charter sector implicitly acknowledged the dire state of the cod stock—remember that Stellwagen lies in the Gulf of Maine, where cod are believed to have fallen to around 3% of sustainable levels—but the letters coming in from the industry place little or no emphasis on the need for research that will enable managers to help recover the cod population.

Instead, if they mention research at all, it is to argue that the designated habitat research area, and particularly the northern reference area, is not the proper place to conduct habitat studies.  Such an approach can be seen in the comments made by the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association itself, which states

“We’ve also voiced skepticism with the value of the proposed science that would accrue from establishing the DHRA and reference area.  We simply do not believe the research benefits outweigh the loss of jobs and income to the charter fleet and impacted shoreside communities.”
The Association then quotes selected passages from the Amendment which appear to support its position.

On the other hand, various conservation organizations and marine scientists strongly support creation of the research area with an included northern reference area.  Their comments focus on the need to find ways to protect habitat needed to support and hopefully rebuild what remains of the cod stock, as well as to ensure a healthy Gulf of Maine ecosystem in the long term.

However, while focusing on the long term, their comments generally pay little attention to the charter fleet’s short-term survival.

Anglers seem split on the issue.  In terms of sheer numbers, most seemed to go along with a form letter that appears to have been provided by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (or, at least, was sent in by some on RFA letterhead), which stated, in part

“Any additional closed areas for the charter/party and recreational anglers will create an adverse effect on a sector that is already operating under emergency cod closures and rules with strict bag limits, minimum size limits and the present eight month closed season on GOM haddock…
“Recreational anglers have little to no impact on the bottom using weights, cod jigs and hook and line to harvest fish for personal consumption…”
Such sentiment was echoed by at least one charter boat captain, Claude S. Holt of Marshfield, Massachusetts, who wrote

“[M]y biggest complaint is that it has never been proven that rod and reel fishers harm the bottom of the ocean…We all know the damage done by draggers and yet this type of fishing leaves a presence to the ocean floor.  I don’t know how you prove this with a rod and reel fishery.  Almost no one in the charter industry even anchor because we need to stay with the fish.”
Ironically, Capt. Holt, along with the anglers who sent in the form letter, argue that they do no harm, yet oppose the research area and northern reference area, which could be used precisely to prove—or disprove—their assertion.  The Amendment notes that one of the questions to be considered is

“Have we significantly over- or under-estimated the impacts of particular gear types?”
It’s not inconceivable that research would prove that anglers have even less impact on the ecosystem than is currently believed, but we’ll never know until somebody actually conducts a valid investigation.

But even then, answers may not be obvious.  

For, in the end, the question about whether to create the research area, and the no-fishing northern reference area, boils down to one of policy and values.

What should be given priority?

Is it more important to give the charter and private boat fleet every available place to fish in the short term, despite the imperiled state of the cod stock?  If the research area is never created, and the proposed reference area is thus never closed to fishing, will a shortage of cod, and a shortage of needed research, doom the fleet anyway, while pushing the cod population ever closer to some possible point of no return?

Or is it more important to create the research area, along with the closed-to-groundfishing reference area, in order to hopefully gather the data needed to bring the cod back to some semblance of abundance?  But if one takes that course, how many failed charter businesses and lost fishing opportunities will be deemed to be “acceptable losses,” and how many charter and private boats will be left to enjoy the fishery if the research finally yields fruit?

Perhaps the comments made by the Sierra Club’s Massachusetts Chapter sum up the conundrum best.

“The constituents engaged in the [Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2 Draft Environmental Impact Statement] comment process have different world views and goals which make it hard to comment on many of the alternatives discussed in OHA 2 from either a natural or a socioeconomic science perspective.”
Yet just because something is hard doesn’t mean that regulators don’t need to get the job done, and figure out the right alternatives in the shortest possible time.

Charter boats, and private boat owners, too, need to accept the fact that, if scientists can’t figure out how to restore the cod stock to sustainable numbers, their boats may soon be good for very little other than hosting seal-watching tours.

And scientists, as well as regulators and members of the conservation community, need to realize that if they want to be able to gather the data they need to properly rebuild and manage groundfish stocks, they can’t operate in a vacuum.  They must be cognizant of the fishermen’s concerns, and craft the least disruptive alternatives that they prudently can.

In the end, folks may find that there is no way to accommodate both the fishermen’s and the researchers’ needs, and that with respect to 55 square miles of ocean, one group must give way if either is to ultimately succeed.

Where there are no easy answers, as is the case here, the first step is to ask the hard questions.

And that begins when everyone questions themselves, and asks whether they are looking out for the greater public interest, or only looking out for themselves.

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