By Richard Gaines
Craig MacDonald's effort to bar some or all recreational and commercial fishing and make room for research in 39 percent of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary he governs as its superintendent has been given the cold shoulder by its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The director of the Office of National Marine Fisheries at NOAA's National Ocean Service rejected a request in May to transmit the plan for a 251-square mile Sanctuary Ecological Research Area, or SERA, to the New England Fishery Management Council whose Habitat Committee has been straining to complete work on an omnibus amendment that would open to fishing in many and much of the closed areas.
"The SERA doesn't fit with our goals at this point," Habitat Committee Chairman David Prebble, of Narragansett, R.I., said Tuesday. "As a courtesy, we allowed him to make a proposal and presentation to our committee (at its April 6 meeting).
"He was pretty much ripped apart," Prebble said. "The committee was not at all receptive."
MacDonald could not be reached for comment on this story.
The Stellwagen superintendent had kept the plans for the SERA secret from an ad hoc advisory committee and even from his own sanctuary advisory committee until the day he introduced the 39-page proposal last September. The sanctuary advisory committee voted 9-4 to back the concept on the spot.
But by then, MacDonald already had been told that NOAA was not ready to transmit the idea to the New England Fishery Management Council. Both the sanctuary and the fishery management council are subdivisions of NOAA, which governs the transmission of policy initiatives between them.
Prebble explained in a telephone interview that the Habitat Committee's efforts are aimed at opening up closed areas, not creating new ones.
"The Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area should be reopened with a couple of small exceptions," Prebble added.
To protect cod, in 1998 NOAA closed to commercial fishing a 1,100 square mile area, in the shape of a rectangle about 15 miles wide about 18 miles east of Cape Ann that runs from Southern Maine to about 10 miles from the tip of Cape Cod.
The closure was meant to expire in three years, but was extended multiple times.
Prebble said the Habitat Committee has been frustrated by the pace of delivery of research data by council staff needed to finalize the omnibus habitat amendment, but said he understood that the staff has been overwhelmed and distracted by a welter of bon fide and unexpected crises, notably in Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, whose stocks have recently been assessed as less robust than assumed.
In March, MacDonald forwarded to Daniel Basta, director of NOAA's Office of Marine Sanctuaries, a letter to MacDonald from his sanctuary advisory committee making the case — again — for a research area set aside within Stellwagen, which was originally established to protect fishing, not limit it, as Bill Adler noted Tuesday. Adler is executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association and a Stellwagen advisory committee member.
"To now sit on the sidelines would be a huge opportunity lost," wrote Richard Delaney, the advisory council chairman and president of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
But Basta wrote back on May 11, rejecting the idea of a SERA inside Stellwagen and reiterating NOAA's earlier "concerns over the possible economic impacts ... and the changing dynamics of the fishery management system in New England."
The Obama administration had not then or even now responded to Gov. Deval Patrick's filing last November of a series of scientific studies that purported to show that the introduction of catch share commodification to the groundfishery had brought the commercial industry into a catastrophe — especially the dayboats that depend on Stellwagen for a living.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or email@example.com.