New England Fisheries Management Council Approves Omnibus Habitat Amendment, remaining issues to be decided this month

Reprinted with permission from the New England Fishery Management Council in Landings, June, 2015. 

The New England Fishery Management Council (Council) made final decisions, referred to at the meeting as final preferred alternatives, on most sections of the Habitat Amendment at its meeting in Mystic, CT. Once all elements of the action — proposed area designations and those identified as vulnerable and requiring protection from the impacts of fishing — receive Council approval they will be forwarded to NOAA Fisheries for agency approval and implementation. NOAA is always the final decision maker on any measures moved forward by the Council.

To better understand the Council’s intent in developing the Habitat Amendment, it may be helpful to review an introductory paragraph in the draft amendment document that helps explain what types of areas are being considered and why.

Essential Fish Habitat and Habitat Area of Particular Concern designations are based on species-specific distributions and life-history information, and are used primarily for analytical approaches in impact analyses and agency consultations.

Spatial management areas, on the other hand, contain habitats of importance to multiple species, are vulnerable to impacts from fishing, and as such, could be subject to gear restrictions for conservation purposes on the basis of gear type. Three types of spatial management areas are being proposed in the Habitat Amendment, year-round habitat management areas and dedicated habitat research areas, both discussed below; and groundfish seasonal spawning areas. The latter will be discussed at the June Council meeting.

An additional Georges Bank Habitat Management Area alternative, discussed at the April meeting but not previously analyzed, will also be considered in June, along with the groundfish spawning areas.

Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) Designations

EFH designations were specified for all managed species and life stages, including a small number of specific modifications discussed at the meeting. By definition, fishing restrictions are not associated with these areas.

Habitat Areas of Particular Concern

The approved HAPC designations involve six nearshore/continental shelf areas, two seamounts, and eleven submarine canyons or groups of canyons. These areas are not subject to gear or other restrictions, but are singled out because they encompass important and sensitive habitats that should receive careful consideration for conservation purposes.

Habitat Management Areas (HMAs)

Approved for the Eastern Gulf of Maine – The area defined as the Small Eastern Maine HMA would include a complete restriction on use of mobile bottom tending gears.

OHA2 Alternatives April 2015Approved for the Central Gulf of Maine – Gear restrictions for the Cashes Ledge, Jeffreys Bank, and Fippennies Ledge HMAs as mapped in the draft amendment. The Cashes and Jeffreys Bank areas were modified from their previous configurations to focus more closely on shallow, hard bottom habitats. Each would prohibit the use of mobile bottom-tending gears.

The Cashes Ledge Closure Area would be maintained as is. Specifically, it would continue to be off limits year-round to all fishing activity except for the following: (a) charter and party vessels with a letter of authorization; and (b) vessels fishing with “exempted gears” that catch only small amounts of groundfish: spears, rakes, diving gear, cast nets, tongs, harpoons, weirs, dip nets, stop nets, pound nets, pots and traps, surfclam/quahog dredge gear, pelagic hook and line, pelagic longline, single pelagic gillnets, and shrimp trawls.

In accordance with the current groundfish regulations, mid-water trawl gear, and also vessels that are transiting the area with gear that is properly stowed, would be allowed in the Cashes Ledge Closure Area.

For the Western Gulf of Maine – The scenario adopted took into account the existing habitat and groundfish closures in the Western Gulf of Maine. The habitat closure would be maintained as-is, while the groundfish closure would have its eastern boundary shifted 5 minutes of longitude to match the habitat closure boundary.

Within the habitat/groundfish area, current fishing restrictions would be maintained. The exception is an exemption for shrimp trawls from the mobile bottom-tending gear restrictions in the northwestern corner of the area, located in the deep waters west of Jeffreys Ledge. In addition, the Council would continue to limit trawl roller gear to 12 inches in diameter in the existing inshore roller gear area.

For the Great South Channel – A new HMA was adopted with a complete restriction on the use of mobile bottom-tending gears in the northeast corner, and a restriction on the use of mobile bottom-tending gears with an exemption for hydraulic clam dredges throughout the remainder of the area. The dredge exemption would sunset one year after the implementation of the Habitat Amendment. This window of time would provide an opportunity for a more refined clam dredge exemption area or areas to be developed.

The Council also took action in southern New England to create a new HMA near Cox Ledge. Trawls in this area would not be allowed to use ground cables and hydraulic clam dredges will be prohibited.

Dedicated Habitat Research Areas (DHRAs)

The Stellwagen DHRA in the Gulf of Maine, developed to facilitate fisheries research, was approved although a “no fishing” reference area component was not approved. If the research area is not used for scientific investigations within three years, a sunset provision would apply.

The DHRA would be closed to mobile bottom-tending gear, demersal longlines, and sink gillnets, while recreational vessels, midwater gear and other pelagic gear would be allowed. All of these fishing restrictions are currently in place as a result of the existing Western Gulf of Maine habitat and groundfish closures, which overlap the proposed DHRA. The same three-year sunset provision that is in the Stellwagen DHRA, as proposed by the Council would apply to an approved Georges Bank DHRA. Again, the area would be closed to mobile bottom-tending gear types. This area is currently closed to these gears as a habitat closure (Closed Area I South).

The Council further recommended that NOAA Fisheries allow habitat studies to be conducted within the HMAs using commercial fishing vessels as research platforms, but contingent on the approval of an exempted fishing permit.