DEDHAM, MA — Without reading it, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary advisory committee Wednesday voted for a 39 page proposal to set up an "ecological research area" that would halt trawling in 39 percent of the sanctuary and fishing of all kinds, including hook-and-line from private boats in 14 percent.
But the plan which had been kept secret by its author, sanctuary Superintendent Craig MacDonald, until after he completed his morning Powerpoint presentation at a hotel here, had already been shelved by a high level consensus of Obama administration officials at the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The proposed closing, which under any circumstances was months off and needed approval by the New England Fishery Management Council, "put 123 jobs at stake," said one Obama administration official.
The council which had requested the submission of the sanctuary, is in the midst of a comprehensive review of closed areas and habitat and is expected to open some of the long closed grounds and put some habitat off limits to some kinds of fishing. But that process could take many months.
MacDonald was cryptic about the decision made in recent days in Washington that this was not the right time to propose taking away from commercial and recreational fishermen 89 square miles of the most cherished and richest fishing grounds on the East Coast.
"We're not sending this to NOAA today" was MacDonald's initial hint that he hopes to get the SERA (sanctuary ecological research area) he secretly engineered to undertake studies of the impact of fishing different gears, in various water depths on the four kinds of bottom — sandy, rocky, muddy and gravelly.
Later, Macdonald gave a more intricate explanation — that NOAA had decided to postpone any decision on closing sections of Stellwagen to fishing while NOAA and the regional fishery management council, which meets in Danvers in two weeks, completes its study of the impact of catch share fishing by sectors of fishing cooperatives and determined the social and economic impacts of the radical transformation of the groundfishery.
The council, as part of its review of catch shares which appear to have engendered the kind of dramatic consolidation of the fleet — fewer boats catching about the same size and value of landings — is beginning belatedly to focus on the issue of fleet diversity.
"NOAA has decided to withhold consideration of a research closure area within the sanctuary until we have a better understanding of the economic and social dynamics of the past year's fishing seas," said NOAA's chief spokesman Justin Kenney in an e-mail.
Because of Stellwagen's proximity to Gloucester — less than 10 miles from the 56 square nautical mile trapezoid in the plan where trawling would be barred in MacDonald's plan and about the same distance from the 89 square nautical mile trapezoid in the plan where fishing of all kinds would be barred to "reference area" — the implementation of the proposal would force major alterations in the activities of the commercial day boat fleet based.
MacDonald tried to soft sell the impacts of the SERA, contending that there would be little economic fallout.
At one point, he defended the size of the no fishing zone as "just right," alluding to the sage of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."
"Large but not too large," MacDonald offered.
Yet nearly everyone at the meeting of the 14-member advisory committee — many Gloucester fishermen and members of the Northeast Seafood Coalition had made the trip through morning rush hour traffic to learn where MacDonald wanted to stop fishing — seemed frustrated by the narrative of events.
"It's really unfortunate to try to sell this plan as insignificant," Vito Giacalone, the policy director for the coalition and a member of the ad hoc subcommittee of the advisory committee, said. "I'm appalled."
He went on to propose an alternative plan that would have shifted most of the no fishing zone into the 900 nautical square miles of the Western Gulf of Maine Closed area, a long thin rectangle that overlaps Stellwagen, creating a "sliver" inside the sanctuary where commercial fishing has been banned for 13 years but recreational is allowed.
Giacalone said his idea had the benefit of providing a 13-year history free from commercial fishing that is ignored in the plan put forward by MacDonald, but the advisory council rejected the alterative option by a similar, 9-5, to the 9-4-1 vote for MacDonald's plan.
"If NOAA drags its heels," said Priscilla Brooks, an advisory committee member and vice president of ocean conservation at Conservation Law Foundation, "this will never be considered. I'm very frustrated."
Les Kaufman, a Boston University biologist and longtime participant in the management of Stellwagen, was one observer of the meeting who was not frustrated. He said he understood the thinking in Washington to put the SERA proposal in the freezer for a while, out of political discretion, and added that he also saw reason for hope in the commercial fishing industry's agreeability — reflected in Giacalone's counter proposal to shift the no fishing zone out of Stellwagen, but still have one.