Fishery Plan Amendments Good Start -- Hardest Work Lies Ahead, Environmental Groups Say

October 14, 1998
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New England fish stocks could be replenished and overfishing eventually ended by fishery management plans submitted by the New England Fishery Management Council, three environmental groups said today. A 1996 Federal law required the Council to submit the fishery plans or plan amendments to the Secretary of Commerce by October 13.

The Center for Marine Conservation (CMC), Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) also said the Council has met the new law's requirement to identify essential fish habitat and ways to protect this habitat from non-fishing impacts, such as pollution and filling wetlands for coastal development. But the Council failed to propose all practicable measures to minimize the adverse effects on habitat caused by fishing and failed to provide a comprehensive report on bycatch, as required by the law.

"The New England Council deserves praise for taking the Sustainable Fisheries Act deadline very seriously," said Priscilla Brooks, a marine economist with the Conservation Law Foundation. "If the Council is able to maintain the political will to enforce these new and amended management plans over the next several years --a big question mark -- many overfished stocks could recover within 10 years, restoring jobs and millions of dollars of fishing revenue to the region's economy."

The Council has made the risky decision, however, to delay ending the overfishing of three species ? monkfish, scallops and spiny dogfish -- for several years in order to cushion the fishing industry from the shock of necessary catch reductions. "Delaying fishing reductions will result in a further decline in already depleted stocks before they begin to rebuild, increasing the risk of population collapse and delaying the economic benefits of stock recovery," said Sonja Fordham, fisheries project manager for the Center for Marine Conservation.

"Although the rebuilding plans look hopeful on paper, whether the New England Council will enforce these plans year after year is very uncertain," said Doug Hopkins, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. "The Council?s implementation of the two-year-old rebuilding plan for the cod, haddock and flounder stocks has already fallen seriously behind. Faced with chilling scientific advice two months ago that Gulf of Maine cod is in a state of collapse despite current fishing cut-backs under the groundfish rebuilding plan, the Council has failed to recommend emergency action to further reduce catch of Gulf of Maine cod."

With the adoption of the new plans or plan amendments, each of the fisheries under Council management will soon be subject to an annual scientific review to measure progress toward rebuilding targets and to recommend changes in fishing restrictions to keep the rebuilding plans on track. "Unless the Council fully implements the management changes recommended by the scientists, the rebuilding plans will fail," said Hopkins. "Consistently voting for conservation over the inevitable objections of vocal fishermen will take political willpower."

The amended law also required the Council to identify and describe habitats essential to fish targeted by fishermen, and to take action to protect those habitats, including minimizing the damaging impacts of fishing gear on the ocean floor.

"Although the New England Council did a very impressive job of identifying and describing essential fish habitats, the Council did not include all practicable measures, as required by the 1996 federal law, to protect habitat from the impacts of fishing gear," said Brooks. "Depending on the area, bottom trawling, scallop dredging and other types of fishing can severely damage sensitive sea floor habitat essential for fish and other marine life. The proposed new juvenile cod habitat protection area on Georges Bank is a good start, but the Council needs to protect similar rocky and cobbled bottom habitat in the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere in New England waters." Brooks' organization, the Conservation Law Foundation, along with MIT Sea Grant, recently released the proceedings of a symposium on the effects of fishing on the New England ocean floor.

The new federal fisheries law also requires the Council to report on and minimize bycatch, the unintended catch of non-target species. "Bycatch can amount to significant waste of public resources, often exacerbates overfishing and is causing as yet poorly understood damage to marine ecosystems," said Fordham. "The Council must still provide the public a comprehensive report on the New England region's bycatch and all feasible solutions, as required by the new law."

Although the eight US regional fishery management councils made progress toward implementing the tough new conservation requirements of the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, some councils missed the Act's October 13 deadline and some councils have submitted or are poised to submit new fishery management plans or plan amendments that fall short of the conservation requirements. The Federal law set a 24 month deadline for the councils to submit new management plans or plan amendments to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, identify and protect essential fish habitat, and minimize bycatch.