By Richard Gaines
The head of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is preparing a proposal for an "ecological research area" that could limit recreational and commercial fishing in Stellwagen for the first time since the protected area was created off Massachusetts in 1993.
Stellwagen Superintendent Craig MacDonald has scheduled an advisory committee meeting for Thursday in Boston. And the idea that MacDonald might ask federal fishery managers to limit activity inside Stellwagen has created inordinate interest in the 9 a.m. public meeting at the New England Aquarium.
The history of Stellwagen, an 842-square-mile stretch of ocean water that extends across Massachusetts Bay and seems balanced between the tips of Cape Ann and Cape Cod, was forged by an alliance of conservation and fishing interests to create a safe haven for fishing from other commercial activities.
In the run-up to the meeting, fishermen and even members of the ad hoc subcommittee of the Sanctuary Advisory Committee say they've been left largely in the dark.
"I have zero information," said Vito Giacalone, a commercial fisherman from Gloucester who is policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition and one of eight members of the sanctuary subcommittee, which will be meeting for the first time.
"They did warn me don't expect details of the plan on Thursday," he said.
"None of us know very much," said John Williamson, another ad hoc committee member. Williamson is a charter fisherman in Maine and a former member of the New England Fishery Management council. "We're going to be discussing data sets."
In a telephone interview, MacDonald said Tuesday he would use the input from the subcommittee to shape a proposal for a research area inside the sanctuary to help clarify how fishing affects the ecosystem.
He said he intends to submit his proposal at the September meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council.
Authority to manage fishing inside the sanctuary resides with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the activities of the council. The council members are appointed by the Secretary of Commerce and serve together with officials holding statutory seats for coastal fishing states.
MacDonald said he would put before the subcommittee 60 or so combinations of spatial data on how the different fishing methods impact what is one of the most heavily studied, used and populated ocean zones within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
He said he was "putting all options on the table" for how best to structure, locate and control activity inside the research area, but he conceded there is value in having "a reference site where there is no fishing," or that is "closed to bottom-impact fishing."
Instrumental in the initial push to create Stellwagen as an area for research and recreation was the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association.
"We started the process together with the Conservation Law Foundation," association President Angela Sanfilippo said in a three-part series the Times published in 2008, when MacDonald was publicizing a new report and management plan.
Sanfilippo and both recreational and commercial fishing interests, however, were made suspicious of MacDonald's long-term motives by the emphasis on fishing's harm to the sanctuary in the lengthy document, a shorter synopsis of its findings and the superintendent's rhetoric.
"Fishing — especially commercial fishing — impacts and pressures every resource state in the sanctuary," reads the first of seven "key findings" in the brochure which summarizes the management plan.
"On an annual basis, virtually every square kilometer if the sanctuary is physically disturbed by fishing, and fishing has removed almost all the big old-growth individuals among biologically important fish populations, reshaping biological communities and habitats in the process," MacDonald said in a public report on the findings of the environmental study in the management plan.
A key figure in the impending debate over the creation of a research area inside Stellwagen is David Pierce, the deputy director of marine fisheries in Massachusetts who is also a member of the ad hoc subcommittee that meets Thursday and the New England fishery council that will consider MacDonald's proposal in September.
"The Division of Marine Fisheries has not received any proposals regarding the sanctuary and therefore cannot comment," Pierce said in a statement to the Times. "However, the Division aims to strike a proper balance between useful ecosystem research, habitat protection, and commercial and recreational fishing interests."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.