Thousands of acres of New England’s protected ocean wildlife habitat in such places as Cashes Ledge, Stellwagen Bank, Jeffrey’s Ledge and Georges Bank is again at risk as the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) heads into next week’s meeting.
The NEFMC is scheduled to identify its preferences for which ocean habitat areas will be protected from the impacts of bottom trawling and other harmful fishing gear. This work is part of the NEFMC’s ongoing development of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment (OHA). While a final OHA decision is not expected until June, the selection of preferred alternatives will set the stage for final scientific analysis and public involvement to decide the fate of the best remaining habitat in all of New England’s ocean.
Some of the ocean habitat areas have been protected for twenty years and served in the recovery of Georges Bank haddock stocks and the now famous scallop fishery that has made the City of New Bedford the top fishing revenue port in the U.S. for the past 13 years. Two important places at risk are the magical Cashes Ledge, with its dense, kelp-forested mountains and healthy surrounding ecosystem, and the Western Gulf of Maine protected area, a refuge for highly productive female cod that is a particular favorite of the recreational fishery.
With New England’s groundfish populations at historic lows and the prognosis for recovery not getting any better wouldn’t you think that any decision affecting these places—even preliminary ones—would be made with a full review of the best and most complete scientific research and data? And yet it appears the NEFMC has plans to do precisely the opposite.
Over the lengthy ten year OHA development process, the NEFMC’s technical team has attempted to compile the most critical information needed to select among about forty different alternatives for habitat protection and research areas into a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The DEIS is a legally required, multi-volume document that will include detailed characterizations and maps of the habitat found in New England’s ocean waters. More than just a paper exercise, the DEIS holds descriptions of the specific habitats that fish use at each life stage and measures the impacts that each type of fishing gear has on the ocean environment. The DEIS also holds an estimate of the economic effect of fishing a proposed habitat area versus the value of protecting it.
This important document will guide the Council’s initial decisions and inform the public about the different alternatives for protecting habitat. In order to ensure that the Council’s choices are based on the facts, it is essential that the analysis be completed before the Council selects its preferred habitat protection alternatives.
Unfortunately, and in spite of the best efforts of the technical staff, the current DEIS is lacking analysis of the environmental impacts of 14 separate habitat alternatives and an economic impacts analysis of 20 habitat and research alternatives. How can the NEFMC ensure that its decisions are appropriate and defensible when almost half of the alternatives are lacking fundamental environmental and economic impact information? How too can the public meaningfully comment on these alternatives when they are presented with only some of the facts?
Environmental impact studies are designed to help make good decisions before the use of the American public’s natural resources, not to justify decisions after they are made. The solution here is simple. The NEFMC meets again in January and this process of selecting preferred alternatives can be dealt with then. The fate of New England’s best ocean habitat deserves a thorough approach and should avoid the risk of premature, ill-informed decisions.