Feds Seek Input on New Ocean Habitat Regulations

David Goethel sorts cod and haddock on April 23, 2016, while fishing aboard his trawler off the coast of New Hampshire. The federal government is close to enacting new rules about New England ocean habitat that could mean changes for the way it manages the marine environment and fisheries. It is taking comments on the proposal through Dec. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

(CN) – The public comment period closes Tuesday for the federal government’s proposal to reopen some protected fish habitats off the coast of New England, including part of the historic fishing grounds of Georges Bank.

The New England Fishery Management Council, which operates under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is taking public comments through Tuesday night on its proposal to change how it manages ocean habitat.

The proposed Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment is a revision of current federal regulations intended to bring fishery management plans into compliance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which requires the government to minimize the harmful effects of fishing on marine environments.

Under the proposal, northern portions of Georges Bank would be open to scallop fishermen while a habitat area established on Georges Shoal will allow some clam dredging. Georges Bank, a shallow plateau off of Cape Cod, once supported a vibrant fishing industry until large scale overfishing decimated cod, haddock, herring and sea scallop populations.

Since the 1990s, certain areas have restricted fishing to allow populations to recover. Former President Obama designated the southern edge of Georges Bank a national monument last year under the Antiquities Act. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument encompasses 4,900 square miles of undersea canyons, endangered species, and ancient volcanoes.

In exchange for opening the northern edge of Georges Bank, the NOAA’s proposal advocates closing the Great South Channel to the harvesting of scallops and clams where hydraulic clam dredges operate.

Christopher Lischewsi, president and CEO of seafood giant Bumble Bee Seafoods, expressed concern that the new rules could hurt the clamming industry.

“As discussed in the analysis accompanying OA2, the proposed amendment could have a very significant negative economic impact on our industry if vessels using hydraulic dredges to harvest clams are prohibited from fishing in key clamming areas. Ensuring that our supply chain is able to provide our factory with adequate raw material is of paramount concern to Bumble Bee Seafoods,” Lischewski wrote in a letter posted to the public comments.

Bumble Bee seeks a temporary exemption for hydraulic clam dredges from various habitat management area closures.

The proposed changes also establish additional designated habitat research areas. But of the 35 public comments received by Tuesday, most environmentalists and recreational anglers argued the existing habitats remain too vulnerable and that the current protections should remain in place.

“Our principal concern in this communication is the lack of analysis and development of alternatives to conserve deep sea corals as essential fish habitat (EFH) in Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and southern New England regions under the purview of the New England Fishery Management Council,” wrote Katie Cubina, senior vice president of Mystic Aquarium, a division of Sea Research Foundation, in a request that the amendment address the effects of fishing on corals.

Recreational fishermen, who are currently prohibited from catching cod after the population collapsed, left comments noting their personal experiences in watching fish stock rebound in the areas closed to commercial fishing.

“Save these fish for unborn generations,” wrote one angler opposed to the proposal.

The New England Fishery Management Council is seeking public comments through 11:59pm on Tuesday. It will take the comments into consideration before making its decision on whether to adopt the amendment by early January.

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