In late December, the New England Fisheries Management Council, a body made up largely of commercial fishermen, voted to recommend that bottom trawling and dredging be allowed to resume in more than half of the protected waters that currently shelter New England?s recovering groundfish stocks. The issue now goes up to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Foes of greater dredging link the proposal to an expectation that fishing quotas in the area would be reduced, as they were the following month. ?People are faced with having to cut back on their fishing, and their response is, ?You have to give us access to these areas to allow us relief,?? said Jud Crawford, the science and policy manager for the Northeast Fisheries Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
It is the great fishing conundrum in New England waters. Fish in the Gulf of Maine are still recovering from a prolonged period of exploitation that dealt a particularly severe blow to the region?s cod population. Since the 1990s, regulators have been trying to forge a better relationship between fishermen and fish, working to help the fish populations recover while also rebuilding the local industry.
The closing in the 1990s of 8,500 square miles of fishing territory to the bottom trawlers and dredgers, which can scoop up large quantities and damage groundfish habitat, was part of that strategy. Some groups say the proposal to reopen over 5,000 square miles of that area now stands to harm both the fishermen and the fish.
Tim Tower, a recreational fisherman from Ogunquit, Me., is among those who hold that view. Mr. Tower, 61, has made his living off New England?s seas since he received a lobster license at age 9 and now commands the Bunny Clark, a vessel for recreational fishermen seeking to catch record-breaking fish.
Some years back, he recalled, another fisherman happened upon a sweet spot packed with pollock in the western Gulf of Maine. That fisherman drew up 90,000 pounds of fish in one morning, Mr. Tower said. ?Ninety thousand pounds of anything is a lot,? he said, adding that it took over a decade for that particular area to become fishable again.
Seeing how swiftly a population can collapse has led Mr. Tower to support closed areas. Clearly he has a bias, since the protections don?t apply to recreational fishermen, he admitted. Only large-scale fishing vessels using gear that rakes up the bottom are denied entry to those areas.
But Mr. Tower said he also recognizes that stocks are still so low that the fishermen cannot even reach their quotas. So ?fisherman want another way to catch more fish,? he said ? and the coveted closed areas fit the bill.
Michelle Bachman, a fishery analyst with the New England Fisheries Management Council, emphasized that its December vote was not about opening closed areas outright, but rather allowing fishermen who are part of managed sectors ?to request exemption from the closed area regulations.?
Andrew Applegate, another fishery analyst with the council, said that when the council analysts evaluated the groundfish, they found few differences in maturity, size, length and weight between the fish in the protected areas and those found just outside.
As a result, she said, ?the analysis from a biological perspective was that allowing these interventions is probably O.K.? She added that the remaining off-limits portions of that 8,500-square-mile stretch would be left intact and undisturbed.
But for Dr. Crawford of the Pew Trusts? Northeast Fisheries Program, the council?s vote suggests a mental disconnect between fish and habitat. Lower fishing quotas cannot serve as a substitute for habitat protection, he said. But increasingly, he said, protected areas are treated as ?an artifact of an outdated system of management? by some fishing councils.
Mr. Tower said that if more areas are opened up to the efficient sweeping motions of dredgers and trawlers, ?we will just lose more bottoms? ? the intricate ecosystems where groundfish hide and spawn. Viewed from underwater, he noted, large-scale fishing vessels leave stark troughs behind on the sea floor as they dredge and trawl. ?It?s like tilling a field,? he said.
NOAA is expected to decide whether to throw open the gates this spring, possibly in May. Mr. Tower said he hoped that challenges to the move would get a full hearing.
?There are no recovering species in the Gulf of Maine except maybe the dogfish,? he said. ?It?s the lowest I have ever witnessed it anecdotally in my lifetime.? While commercial fishermen face tough economic times, fishing technologies are bound to advance, and the fish need protections that match up, Mr. Tower said.
Ultimately, the fishing interests that have steered the management council?s positions could be the downfall of fishermen if diluted stocks are stripped of their modest havens, he warned.
?The fishermen have been given reins to manage the fisheries and they haven?t been able to do it,? Mr. Tower said. ?One or two bad choices could ruin the fisheries for the rest of our lives.?