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Closing areas, fishing advocates say, is an outdated tool of a discarded fishery management system, and fishermen can now safely catch the healthy fish stocks that swim there.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 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.
But the idea has strong support from the Northeast’s top fisheries regulator, John Bullard, provided there are protections for fish habitat and struggling species.
The first year-round closures began in 1994, when regulators looking to protect deteriorating stocks shut down three areas in Georges Bank to fishermen who chase such bottom-dwelling groundfish as cod, haddock and flounder.
Regulators later closed a long, rectangular area in the western Gulf of Maine in 1998 in a bid to protect cod and groundfish spawning and nursery grounds.
A fifth area, over an underwater mountain range in the Gulf of Maine known as Cashes Ledge, was shut down to groundfishing in 2002.
The closures haven’t walled off these zones to any intrusion by fishermen. Recreational fishermen, herring fishermen, and bottom-dragging scallopers are among those allowed in at different times.
But the long absence of groundfishermen likely means healthier habitat and more dense populations there, Brogan said. With overall fishery health declining, it could be disastrous to allow fishermen in to burn through what could be a last refuge for some species, he said.
Fishery council member Matt McKenzie said he’s concerned that the council is discussing how fishermen can access the area, even though crucial analysis on whether they should isn’t done, and could change everything. He added some seem to think fishing in the closed areas will solve more problems that it really can.
“A lot of people want to give daylight to this industry. I’m one of them. But I want it to be real,” said McKenzie, a University of Connecticut professor with expertise in marine environmental history.
In addition, the benefits of closed areas are widely acknowledged, according to eight university scientists who wrote to federal regulators last month. It’s an “overly simplistic analysis of a complex issue” to look at New England problems and conclude closed areas don’t work, they said, adding overfishing or environmental degradation could be overwhelming those benefits in New England.
Maine fishing boat owner Maggie Raymond said whatever their possible benefits, closed areas are a relic of the old way of managing fisheries. The closed areas aimed to keep fishermen away from the fish, but after a 2010 change, regulators try to control overfishing with strict catch limits for each species. So keeping areas redundant and unneeded.
“It shouldn’t matter where you kill a fish, as long as you don’t exceed whatever allocation that you have for a species,” Raymond said.
Gloucester fishermen Russell Sherman said that opening closed areas will spread out the fishing pressure while making it easier to catch the limit of healthy stocks, which have higher quota. The Cashes Ledge area, for instance, was once a haven for the now plentiful redfish and the western Gulf of Maine area is good for pollock, he said.
Sherman has no doubt the closed areas contain high concentrations of fish. He said fishermen snipe around the edges for fish that wander out, and there’s been plenty to pick off. But Sherman rejects the idea that allowing access will hurt the last vestiges of a species.
Access will be in limited spots, and in areas that don’t contain sensitive fish habitat, he said. The 2013 cuts promise to be so devastating, the areas must be opened, Sherman added.
“If the feds want to look like they’re giving us even a modicum of relief, they better open these areas,” he said.