Advancing fishing rule aims to protect deep-sea coral

Would restrict draggers and trawlers from fishing 600M or more below the surface

FILE - This undated file photo released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made during the Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition 2013, shows corals on Mytilus Seamount off the coast of New England in the North Atlantic Ocean. President Barack Obama established Sept. 15, 2016, the first national marine monument in the Atlantic. The move is designed to permanently protect nearly 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains off the coast of New England. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP, File)

WAKEFIELD, Mass. (State House News Service) – Fishing trawlers bring in an average of $6.4 million annually to Bay State ports from fish scooped off seabeds 600 meters or more below the surface of New England waters.

In an effort to save coral on the ocean floor, the New England Fisheries Management Council is advancing a proposed restriction on draggers and trawlers fishing at those depths.

The waters off New England do not get that deep until beyond George’s Bank and lobstermen that fish on the bank do not set traps at that depth, according to council staff. The proposed rule would exempt the relatively small red crab fishery.

The council’s Habitat Committee signed off Tuesday on the proposal, which affect fishing operations in a roughly 25,000 square mile area. If it is passed by the full council it would need to go through the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, before it would go into effect.

Environmental groups Wild Oceans, Earthjustice, Pew Charitable Trusts and Conservation Law Foundation urged the council’s scientists to study an alternative proposal, which they said would protect more coral than the plan the council advanced. The council agreed to study the conservation groups’ proposal.

“There could be changes at any point in time. Ultimately when the full council votes on this June 22, we’ve got this preferred alternative going in. That hasn’t changed. But other things may be brought up,” said Habitat Committee Chairman John Quinn, a Dartmouth resident and former state rep.

According to the council, deep-sea coral live in waters at least 50 meters deep – so the new restrictions will not protect all of them – and they are “ecologically important,” seeming to provide refuge to species from bottom currents.

The proposal would also restrict groundfishing from certain areas closer to shore in the Gulf of Maine: Mount Desert Rock and Outer Schoodic Ridge. Under the proposal, lobstermen would still be allowed to trap in those restricted areas.

That exemption might provide some relief to Bryan Mills, a stern man on F/V Outnumbered, which fishes out of Millbridge, Maine.

Mills wrote to the council that he feared closures would cause job loss and force fishermen to venture into other waters, pushing “gear on top of gear.”

Mills told the council he is a U.S. Army veteran who did a year tour of Afghanistan and said lobstering provided him a similar sense of purpose as his military service.

“I received a call from a close friend of mine that needed a hand on the boat. The first day I went I felt like I had found the missing piece I had been looking for since my departure from the Army,” Mills wrote.

There is some overlap between the regions that would be protected under the proposed rule and the more than 4,900 square mile area that former President Obama designated as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

The 2016 designation restricted fishing in the monument area and gave lobster and crab operations a seven-year window to fish before ceasing operations.

Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, said the monument area covers three of the canyons that the proposed rule would cover.