Fishery regulators approved a plan to reconfigure closed fishing areas on Georges Bank, one of New England's key fishing grounds, on Tuesday.
The New England Fishery Management Council said its approval of the Georges Bank changes will allow New England's economically challenged groundfishing fleet, which fishes for species such as cod and haddock, to access healthy stocks. The council issued a statement that said the plan is designed to address "the adverse impacts of fishing gear" used in the groundfish, clam and scallop fisheries on Georges Bank, an oval area of about 10,000 square miles located off Massachusetts.
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Environmental groups quickly criticized the move as jeopardizing the health of the ocean in favor of economic interests, while advocates for fishermen said the changes will allow for better management of resources. Peter Shelley, interim president of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the reconfiguration diminishes protected habitat when New England's cod stock is in historically bad shape.
"Instead of exercising conservation stewardship, the council wrote off the future of critical fish habitat areas that needed additional, not fewer, protections," Shelley said.
The Washington, D.C.-based group Saving Seafood issued a statement trumpeting the changes as "historic reforms" and said the reconfiguration improves opportunities for fishermen without sacrificing "the quality of habitat protection" in New England waters.
"It allows fishermen and scallopers to access critically important fishing grounds that are currently off-limits," the group said.
There are nearly 7,000 square miles of habitat and groundfish closures on Georges Bank and in the Great South Channel, New England Fishery Management Council officials said. The changes made by the council keep some of the existing closures, reconfigure some and open others, which will leave 2,000 square miles of protected habitat, the council said.
The new closures include more complex seabed habitat than the existing closures, the council said. Two areas would also be closed for groundfish spawning from February to April.
The council's vote, cast at a meeting in Newport, Rhode Island, followed up on an April vote to keep protections to Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine. The changes are subject to the approval of federal Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.
The recent changes to habitat impact the way fishermen catch important species including cod and scallops in federal waters from Maine to Rhode Island. The council is meeting to consider other issues facing the New England fishing industry through Thursday.