Coral Zone Measures Moving Fast

Terry Stockwell, Department of Marine Resources (DMR) external affairs director and vice-chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), addressed a very interested audience at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum about the Council’s proposed Deep-Sea Coral Amendment, which would place four areas of the Gulf of Maine off-limits to fishermen. Two of those areas — Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock — are fished by Maine lobstermen.
The goal of the proposed Amendment is to protect deep-sea corals from existing and future harm from commercial fishing activities. The Amendment does this by identifying large areas of the Gulf (deeper than 300 meters), canyon areas along the edge of the Continental Shelf, and several seamounts as protected zones. It also pinpoints areas closer to shore — the two named previously as well as Jordan Basin and Lindenkohl Knoll — as possible protected areas.
Gear restrictions would be put in place in these zones. According to Stockwell, two approaches are being considered. The first would prohibit fixed and mobile bottom-tending gears. The second would prohibit just mobile bottom gears. Transiting across the zones is allowed. The object of both is to make sure that no fishing gear is in contact with the seabed where there may be corals. NEFMC is considering two possible exemptions to the first approach: to exempt the red crab fishery and/or to exempt other trap fisheries.
“We [DMR] told the Council that we believe lobster and crab fisheries should be exempted from these two coral protection areas,” Stockwell said. At its January meeting, however, NEFMC decided it was too early in the process to make that exemption. Council members asked for more information on the economic value of Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock areas and possible community impacts of the proposed closures.
Stockwell was interrupted by Andy Mays, a lobsterman and scalloper from Southwest Harbor. “We’re stuck again in a reactionary mode,” he said, venting the frustration of many in the room. “What is the data that makes this necessary?”
Stockwell explained that the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act revision in 2006 gave the Council discretionary authority to identify and implement measures to protect deep sea corals in New England. Instead of incorporating coral protections in its Omnibus Essential Fisheries Habitat Amendment, the Council decided to draw on that authority to create an independent plan specifically for deep-sea corals. It did so quickly. “This process is moving very fast,” Stockwell added.
The DMR took three approaches to assessing the economic impact of the proposed closures: estimating total revenue by distance from shore; estimating combined average values, days fished, number of boats in the area and percent of total income; and estimating percent of total area against total income. “Part of the problem is that we assume equal productivity on every piece of bottom [in a lobster zone] but it could be that these areas [the proposed closed areas] are three times more productive than other parts of the zone,” Kathleen Reardon, DMR biologist, said. Assuming that fifty boats draw approximately 50% of their income from lobstering within each of the two coral protection areas, DMR came up with a $4 million value.
Reardon explained that gathering relevant data on how those areas are used by fishermen is critical. There is no data that directly reports landings or value for the areas proposed for closure. The department drew on Maine dealer and harvester logbook data and the few Vessel Trip Reports available for those areas to generate an estimate of the economic impact, but, said Reardon, “the data are fuzzy. We need better data from you. We need to know where you fish.”
To complicate matters further, the Outer Schoodic Ridge coral protection area is also an area that appears to have a high co-occurrence of right whales and lobster traps, according to a computer model created in 2010.
Lobstermen in the audience peppered Reardon and Stockwell with questions. David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, called for lobstermen to give DMR the data that it needs. “We need data from everyone who fishes in that area. This is going to happen in May. Our position is that we want an exemption. But that won’t happen without the economic data. We don’t want to have a precedent of closing coral zones to lobster fishing!”
Carla Guenther, from the Penobscot East Resource Center (now the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries) noted that the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council had chosen to exempt lobster fishing from its deep-sea coral zones primarily because the depths are so great that no one actually fishes there. In the case of Maine, lobstermen are active in the areas and closures will have a financial impact. “If they [the Council] have given us the opportunity to make an economic argument against it, we should do it,” she said.
Stockwell emphasized that the Council’s clock on final approval was ticking. “In March there will be public workshops in New Bedford and Portsmouth. Then the Habitat Committee will meet in March and may select a preferred alternative. The Council meets in April when it may choose its preferred alternative. Then there will be public hearings if they do choose,” he explained. The DMR has scheduled meetings along the coast to get input from lobstermen in order to speak with one voice to the Council. “DMR’s position is that there should be a complete exemption for lobster gear,” Stockwell said.