By Richard Gaines
---- — In the midst of one of the epic efforts at ocean management — a more than decade-long effort to drill into the scientific intricacies of North Atlantic bottom habitat and adjust areas closed to fishing since the 1970s — a fierce skirmish has broken out between worried environmentalists and the work of independent scientists.
Standing arm in arm in opposition to opening closed areas are the Pew Environment Group, Conservation Law Foundation and Sylvia Earle, the former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who shares former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco’s preference for no fishing zones.
All three advocates in recent days have prophesied doom for the fish should the New England Fishery Management Council complete its work with a modernized map of closed areas, which, according to its published timetable, could happen as soon as December 2014. That would end a scientific, governmental and scientific process that began in 2004, but in all likelihood will be delayed beyond even that date.
The process, however, has been slowed by a lawsuit by environmental groups and various crises that pushed off the study of essential fish habitat and closed areas, while the management council, an arm of NOAA that studies science and makes policy recommendations, struggled with the disappearance of cod and shortages of other bottomfish essential to the aquatic economy.
Earle’s Mission Blue Alliance and the Pew Environment Group, the foundation born of the Sun Oil fortune, use the same interactive map on their websites, and profess that an area he size of Connecticut “is at risk of serious ecological setback,” via the opening of closed areas.
Chris Kellogg, a member of the staff of the New England Fishery Management Council, explained that the process of examining each of the closed areas and then analyzing their peculiarities was enormously daunting.
“We’ve had to look at each of them,” he said. “There are six to eight major closed, whose origins trace to the ‘70s to protect cod or haddock, then used as mortality closures, with morphing boundaries.”
Over the years, improved models for evaluating fishing activity have come into use. And the side of independent science was taken up by the industry news site SavingSeafood.org.
On March 13, Saving Seafood laid out the arguments by CLF against opening closed areas to limited fishing through catch share sectors and, citing independent scientific research, sought to dispatch the argument — central to all the doomsdayers — that trawling would despoil the ocean bottom and thus degrade the sensitive ecosystem above it.
“A 2001-2002 federal survey with NOAA evaluating the effects of trawls on soft-bottom New England habitats concluded that the effects of trawls were comparable to the effects of natural disturbances,” the SavingSeafood.org report indicated. “The study found no significant ecological or physiological difference between the seabed communities in areas that have been trawled for over 50 years and areas that have only been disturbed by natural events. A more recent academic study concludes that the effects of dredging are even less than those from natural events.”
“The Alliance’s allegations about the ecological effects of trawling in New England do not appear to be informed by relevant scientific findings.
“A significant portion of the Georges Bank seabed is a sandy, soft-bottom ecosystem. This type of benthic environment shifts frequently due to strong tidal changes and storms. These areas are considered ‘highly dynamic,’ meaning that they are accustomed to natural disturbances,” the report found.
A 2012 study by scientists from the Alaska Pacific University and the School of Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth found that tidal forces were strong enough to shift seafloor habitats every two weeks. Much of Georges Bank is subject to tidal forces so strong — roughly equivalent to or greater than 70 mile-per-hour winds on land — and shifts so much that very little permanent life can grow.
Multiple studies demonstrate that trawling in dynamic environments has minimal effects on the seabed’s ecosystem and productivity.
A 2001-2002 federal survey evaluating the effects of trawls on soft-bottom New England habitat concluded that the effects of trawls were comparable to the effects of natural disturbances. The study found no great ecological difference between seabeds in areas that have been trawled for over 50 years and areas that have only been disturbed by natural events.
A later 2006 academic study reached a similar conclusion about the effects of trawling on Georges Bank, concluding that a “short-term sea scallop fishery” alters the environment “less than the natural dynamic environmental conditions of Georges Bank.”
Two days later, March 15, Saving Seafood refuted similar claims made by the Pew Environment Group.
“The council as part of its current Omnibus Habitat Amendment, has proposed revisions to the existing closed areas in Georges Bank. These revisions follow the results of an extensive analysis of the currently designated closures and the Georges Bank seafloor,” Saving Seafood reported. “The Council determined that maintaining the areas in their current form ultimately has a more detrimental impact on Georges Bank habitats than the Council’s recently suggested alternative boundaries ...The Council further noted in its analysis that “allowing fishing in almost any portion of the area closures on Georges Bank, is estimated to substantially decrease total adverse effects from fishing.”
“This finding is supported by several other peer-reviewed studies published in the last decade,” the report continued. “For example, a 2010 study examining the structure of the seabed on Georges Bank found that the existing closure boundaries often do not correspond to the habitat features on Georges Bank that are most in need of protection.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.