BOSTON — There are five zones off the New England coast drawn in varying angles and shapes, all rich with fish, or at least they were at one time. It’s why regulators looking to preserve valuable species closed these areas to certain kinds of fishing year-round, beginning in the 1990s.
Two decades later, a fishing industry in crisis wants to get back in.
Closing areas, fishing advocates say, is an outdated tool of a discarded fishery management system, and fishermen can now safely catch the healthy fish stocks that swim there. With regional fish populations limping along, they say, there’s little evidence closing these areas has worked anyway.
“After this ... 19-year science experiment, have we got any positive proof that anything actually happens?” New Hampshire fisherman Dave Goethel asked at a meeting of regulators this fall.
But others argue regulators are moving too fast to open long-protected areas next year without understanding the consequences. They say closed areas generally work to protect fish and their habitats, and the current crisis in New England doesn’t disprove that.
Massive cuts in the 2013 catch limits are inevitable because of slow recovery of key stocks, and Gib Brogan of the environmental group Oceana said he knows regulators want to help fishermen and prevent industry collapse.
But he said they may just doom the fishery by exposing the last strongholds of healthy fish.
“Our concern is that mitigation is moving toward liquidation,” he said.
Next Thursday, regional regulators at the New England Fishery Management Council will decide whether sectors of fishermen should be allowed to ask federal regulators for permission to fish in the closed areas.
If the council votes yes, regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would still have to approve the individual requests. Just limited sections of the closed areas would be open to fishermen, and it’s all hinged on whether the council concludes that pending analysis on the effects of opening the areas shows it would be OK.