Fish Habitat—a Safety Net for Ocean Fisheries—Needs Stronger Protections

New NRDC report examines “essential fish habitat” in U.S. fisheries management.

Kelp bass swim through eelgrass habitat in the Pacific Ocean

Adam Obaza/NOAA Fisheries West Coast

Under the ocean’s vast surface, marine habitats are what brings these waterbodies to life. Kelp forests are like explosively diverse rainforests but with algae for trees. Craggy cliffs draped in showy and ecologically vital corals line underwater mountains (known as seamounts) and canyons. These habitats are the foundation of our ocean ecosystems, home to as much as 80 percent of life on earth, and they support rich fisheries that feed and provide jobs to millions of people.

These underwater refuges, nurseries, and feeding grounds face an onslaught of threats like never before. Warming and acidifying waters, pollution, drilling, harmful fishing practices, and other human activities have increasingly undermined the quality and quantity of important marine habitats. The nation’s fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (the Magnuson-Stevens Act or MSA), provides fishery managers with the tools to mitigate one of these threats: harms from fishing, specifically destructive commercial fishing practices like bottom trawling—by which large, weighted fishing gear is towed along the ocean floor, physically damaging marine habitats.

NRDC’s new report, titled A Safety Net for Ocean Fisheries: The Case for Stronger Protection of Essential Fish Habitat Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, shows that fishery managers in most regions have fallen short of their charge under the law to protect what has been designated as “essential fish habitat” (EFH). We found that, with some exceptions, the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s requirement to protect EFH has generally not reduced commercial fishing’s ongoing adverse effects on fish habitat and marine ecosystems.

As climate change and ocean acidification are causing cascading changes in our oceans, habitat protection is an important tool to safeguard our ocean and its fisheries. A growing body of science shows that reducing habitat damage from fishing can benefit fishery productivity and resilience, and ocean ecological health more generally.

NRDC’s report relied on geospatial analysis, mapping, and review of regulatory documents to assess how each of the eight federal regional management councils has applied the Magnuson-Stevens Act requirements to designate and protect essential fish habitat from fishing impacts. Our analysis focused specifically on instances where the councils have protected habitat from all fishing impacts, the strongest type of EFH protection, or they have prohibited bottom trawling—which is both the most widely used towed commercial fishing gear and the gear most often restricted for habitat protection purposes.

Left: Untrawled bottom habitat (Western Jordan Basin) in the Gulf of Maine. Right: Trawled bottom habitat (Central Jordan Basin).

Courtesy of Peter Auster and Gulf of Maine 2014 Coral Science Team, UConn/UMaine/NOAA NMFS

Our research and analysis showed that:

1. Half of the councils have protected little of the EFH they have designated (5 percent or less in each region) from bottom trawling. These councils include the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, Mid-Atlantic, and New England. The table below shows how much EFH has been designated by each council (as a percentage of federal waters, which are generally waters more than three nautical miles from shore) and what percentage of this EFH has been protected from bottom trawling for habitat protection purposes.

2. The four councils that have protected meaningful portions of their designated EFH from bottom trawling have done so largely through “freeze the footprint” closures. These include the South Atlantic, North Pacific, Pacific, and Western Pacific councils (see the table above). “Freeze the footprint” closures, which encompass more than 90 percent of the closed areas in these regions, are intended to prevent the expansion of bottom trawling into new areas but allow such trawling to continue where it has historically occurred. These closures have frequently been used to protect pristine, highly vulnerable, and/or high-functioning habitat, such as deep-sea corals. The “freeze the footprint” closures, however, have also tended to protect, entirely or primarily, areas that are at low or no risk of bottom trawling because they are too deep or too rugged or are lacking in fish species targeted by bottom trawls, and generally do not encompass a range of representative habitats in a given region.

3. Councils have performed unevenly in protecting certain particularly important or vulnerable habitats from bottom trawling. Within EFH, councils can designate areas of particular ecological value or vulnerability as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs). However, several councils have not prohibited bottom trawling in habitat they have identified as HAPCs. For example, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and New England Fishery Management Council have each protected only 24 percent of their HAPCs. While four other councils—the Caribbean, Pacific, North Pacific, and Mid-Atlantic—have protected much higher proportions of their HAPCs (70 to 100 percent), they designated very little HAPC to begin with (less than 1 percent to 4 percent of designated EFH). The South Atlantic Council is a relative exception to this pattern: 41 percent of the council’s designated EFH has been designated as HAPCs, and 43 percent of this has been protected.

4. Councils have protected virtually no habitat from all commercial fishing gear or all fishing impacts (as opposed to prohibiting only bottom trawling or, in some cases, other bottom gear). Our analysis shows that, across all the regions, the councils have only twice approved this strongest level of EFH protection for long-term habitat protection purposes: in the Hind Bank Marine Conservation District in the Caribbean and in the Tortugas Marine Reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. Together, these two areas encompass only 92 square miles, or approximately 0.002 percent of all federal ocean waters. It is worth noting that the nation’s system of marine national monuments contains the overwhelming majority (by areal extent) of habitat areas in U.S. waters that have been protected from all commercial fishing gear or all fishing impacts—and not simply impacts to bottom habitat.

Each region has a unique story to tell in how marine habitat and EFH specifically has been protected, informed by the council’s management history and tradition, by the nature of the region’s marine habitat and fisheries, and even by how other laws have been used in the region to protect habitat. For a fuller picture of how the councils have implemented the EFH requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and a greater understanding of the context of our findings, we highly recommend a deeper dive into NRDC’s report, which includes detailed maps and tables for each region. We also provide detailed documentation of the methodologies used to identify the EFH categories and MSA protections used in the report.

Red grouper in Dry Tortugas National Park

NOAA

NRDC’s analysis shows that habitat protections are a generally underutilized tool for ensuring healthy and climate-resilient fisheries. As policymakers consider improvements to federal fisheries policy, updating the EFH requirement should be a top priority. NRDC’s report recommends the following actions for policymakers:

1. Require the development and implementation of regional habitat protection plans, including quantitative and measurable objectives and targets that help drive protective actions and monitoring protocols.

2. Remove the law’s “to the extent practicable” provision to EFH protection. The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires councils to minimize fishing’s adverse effects on EFH only “to the extent practicable.” This has encouraged councils to treat EFH protection as largely discretionary and to give heavier weight to the accessing of fishing areas, even if such fishing is harming habitat.

3. Require identification and protection of Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs).

4. Require councils to regularly review and update EFH and HAPC designations.

5. Increase funding for integrated research initiatives to improve EFH designations, for monitoring the results of habitat-based fisheries management and for research into the nexus between habitat protection and managing climate impacts to fisheries.

Red coral and shrimp in Lydonia Canyon, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument

NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition

We must employ many other tools to best protect ocean habitat, including reducing and mitigating non-fishing impacts on habitat, mitigating climate change, and providing fully protected safe havens for wildlife and ecosystems to rebuild and reach full health. Improved EFH protections from fishing impacts should be one valuable piece of the puzzle.

We look forward to working with members of Congress and the Biden administration on moving forward solutions that will help our fisheries survive climate change-related disruptions now underway in our oceans. As we recently wrote, Representatives Jared Huffman (CA-02) and Ed Case (HI-01) are leading the way by championing a strong draft bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which includes provisions that would put more teeth into the EFH requirement. Given that councils have direct responsibility for managing fishing and its impacts in the ocean, it is critical that they—together with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation’s oceans agency—make protecting ocean habitats from these impacts a higher priority. As part of doing this, councils must be supported with the necessary resources and tools to ensure success, including both stronger direction and increased scientific and financial support.

About the Authors

Molly Masterton

Staff Attorney, Oceans Division, Nature Program

Brad Sewell

Senior Director, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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