Habitat is where fish make more fish. And New England needs more fish.
In 2012, the New England commercial fishery for cod and other groundfish was declared a disaster, and earlier this month the federal government and six states announced plans to distribute nearly $33 million in taxpayer funds to support fishermen. Just like FEMA flood insurance, we need to stop bailing out the bad behavior that produces these preventable results.
Let’s try changing the behavior. It’s time to be precautionary instead of reactionary.
When it comes to fisheries management, there are many schools of thought for rebuilding fish stocks. Gear restrictions, catch quotas, days at sea. The list goes on. But by far one of the most obvious ways to rebuild fish stocks is by protecting the habitat on which they rely.
Protecting critical fish habitat, best done in the form of marine protected areas (MPAs), provides two essential environmental and economic benefits: sanctuary and spillover.
An MPA gives fish a home. In this sanctuary, they can breed, feed, and take shelter from predators—both underwater and above it. Scientific research from around the world tells us that habitat sanctuaries generally result in more fish, bigger fish, and a greater variety of fish—important building blocks for healthy ocean ecosystems.
As fish biomass grows and the competition for resources begins, fish begin to leave and venture outside the bounds of the MPA. This is called the spillover effect, and it sends fish right into the open arms—nets—of patiently waiting fishermen and ultimately onto your kitchen table.
The benefits of MPAs are so well-established that on Monday, the White House announced a plan to expand an 87,000-square-mile marine monument west of Hawaii to an astounding 783,000 square miles. This would be the largest marine park in the world and more than double the current global total of fully-protected marine habitat.
Here in New England, our commercial fishing industry is struggling just as much as our fish stocks. They are trying desperately to reduce habitat protections and broaden the reach of their boats. The industry argues that fish regulations devastate coastal communities and cost fishermen their livelihood.
But if we allow our beloved cod and haddock to be overfished to the brink of extinction, would fishermen be better off? No. And neither would our ocean ecosystem. Protecting critical habitat will provide the secure sanctuary fish require now and, in time, will produce the economic vitality fishermen crave.
The New England Fishery Management Council is poised for a public comment period on a plan ten years in the making, called the Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat Amendment. Currently under review by NOAA, the Omnibus Amendment should be available to the public for comment by the end of the summer and will provide an excellent opportunity to show your support for protecting fish habitat.
Anyone from the US Fish & Wildlife Service or the National Fish & Wildlife Federation could tell you that habitat destruction and excessive hunting are the two biggest drivers of species extinction on land. Why would the oceans be any different?
As one New England fisheries expert put it: “Habitat is where fish make more fish. And what New England needs is more fish.”
Posted by Tyler Archer, Fisheries, Outreach, and Development Associate for CFE & Save the Sound
Photo: Atlantic Cod by Joachim Muller