In a move criticized by both environmental advocates and federal habitat scientists as being severely flawed, the New England Fishery Management Council gave final approval yesterday to a new set of rules regulating how fishermen catch scallops from Maine to North Carolina. Intended originally to provide more protection to sensitive marine habitats, the new set of rules, called scallop Amendment 10, actually weakens existing protections, while continuing to allow vast expanses of undersea areas to be bulldozed by heavy scallop dredge gear.
Healthy cod nursery grounds are vital to New England's historic fishing industry. While scallop catches are at historically high levels and the scallop fishery is second most lucrative fishery in New England after lobsters, the New England cod fishery has been particularly hard hit. Cod populations remain depleted and scientists are observing historical lows in the number of juvenile cod surviving to adulthood. Adult cod populations have already been overfished, and now scallop dredging will keep destroying cod nursery habitats.
“This is another nail on the coffin for the historically-important New England cod fishery. The Council's decision to allow scallop dredging to continue damaging cod nursery areas is extremely short-sighted. There is no way to defend this terrible decision,” said Chris Zeman, New England Fishery Program Counsel for Oceana. “At a time when managers could have taken a giant step forward and protected areas of seafloor that scientists tell us are extremely important, the Council chose to “thumb their nose” at science and use the same flawed approach that has allowed important nursery areas to be pummeled for the last decade,” said Zeman.
Equally critical of the choices are habitat specialists for the New England Fishery Management Council itself. Previously, scientists and conservationists recommended that the New England Council protect all known complex gravel and cobble habitats from destructive scallop dredging. During deliberations Wednesday council staff told managers that the choice that they were set to approve to protect habitat is nearly impossible to justify based on scientific facts. With Amendment 10 set to protect just 6 percent of important cod nurseries from the path of 4,000-pound dredges it will be very hard to draft a necessary document supporting this choice, council analyst Leslie-Ann McGee told the council.
Wednesday's vote approves the plan to be submitted to NOAA Fisheries for final approval. Federal representatives have already expressed their concerns over some measures included in the plan and conservation groups hope that closer scrutiny will reveal further shortcomings in the plan.
“The choices made by the New England Fishery Management Council were based on bad and incomplete data. We hope that the review of the plan by NOAA Fisheries will show these weaknesses and force them to reject the council's premature decisions,” said Zeman.