The New England Fishery Management Council today approved a plan to protect the region’s highly-vulnerable and ecologically-important deep-sea coral habitat. While better than nothing, I’m not applauding. Here’s why.
The New England fishery council actually voted down the better protection plan that had been developed by its scientific committee over the last six months. This alternative plan was designed to allow a certain category of commercial fishing gear known as bottom-tending mobile gear, which includes bottom trawl nets and dredges, to continue to be generally used where it is currently; however, this alternative also was intended to prevent any significant expanded use of this bottom gear into new areas of coral habitat. This “freeze-the-footprint” approach is supported by NOAA and was adopted by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in its 2015 deep sea coral protection plan. I wrote most recently here about the Mid-Atlantic council’s plan, which originated in a collaborative process between the commercial fishing representatives and ocean conservation groups.
Instead, the New England Fishery Management Council today approved a plan developed exclusively by the commercial fishing industry and that covers about 15-20% less deep-sea coral habitat than the above alternative, according to analyses. Critically, as the Council-industry plan only provides protection to areas around 600 meters and deeper, this unprotected coral habitat is the shallowest habitat and immediately adjacent to areas actively being fished with bottom mobile gear. It is—by far—the coral habitat at greatest risk and the Council’s “expand-the-footprint” approach leaves it in harm’s way. By its proponents’ admission, the Council’s plan encompasses an area of deep, rugged, and high slope ocean bottom that is nearly impossible to fish with the gear in question.
The New England council’s actions also stand in sharp contrast to the protections afforded the first-ever marine monument in the Atlantic, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the deeper portions of which fall within the proposed deep-sea coral protection zone. I have written extensively about the Monument, such as here and here. For the following reasons, the protections under the council’s plan—if and when it is approved and put in place by NOAA—fall far short of the Monument’s current protections and what the Monument’s special and vulnerable wildlife and ecosystems require:
- The Monument protects much more deep-sea coral habitat and other sensitive bottom habitat in and around its three spectacular submarine canyons (named Oceanographer, Lydonia, and Gilbert), including types of vibrant and ecologically-important bottom habitat on the upper slope and the edge of the shelf around these canyons that have been damaged or destroyed by bottom mobile gear virtually everywhere else along the U.S. Atlantic coast.
- The Monument will protect deep sea corals, other sensitive habitat, and other species against additional damaging commercial bottom gear, including commercial longlining and also lobster and crab traps; the latter two of which will be prohibited in the Monument starting in 2023 following a grace period intended to allow relocation of fishing activities (I should note that the Council’s plan also prohibits lobster traps but only below 600 meters, which a recent report prepared by this species’ managing body, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, shows is much deeper than any lobster traps are set in the area).
- The Monument protects much more than deep-sea corals and the ocean bottom. It protects marine mammals, sea birds, sea turtles, and other species against being caught incidentally or entangled in fishing gear. In other words, like a “blue park” akin to a national park or monument on land, the Monument protects the entirety of the ecosystems that make it so special.
- The Monument is permanent, while the Council’s coral plan is discretionary and can be revoked or easily modified.
- The Monument protects against harms from other potential commercial extractive activities, like seabed mining and energy exploration and development. The Council has no jurisdiction to regulate these activities.
The Council’s deep-sea coral protection plan can co-exist with the Monument. But it is no substitute.