NEWPORT – The council that oversees the region’s fishing industry voted Tuesday to reopen vast swaths of Georges Bank to fishing, a decision decried by environmentalists as a blow to conservation efforts, but lauded by fisherman as a boon to their business.
The vote by the New England Fisheries Management Council could lead to the opening of more than 5,000 square miles of some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, and mean tens of millions of dollars in additional catch for fishermen.
The council’s decision, which has to be approved by federal regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would open more than 70 percent of areas previously closed on Georges Bank.
Most of those areas were closed 21 years ago to protect what scientists have described as critical habitat for cod and other species, the populations of which have plummeted.
The council determined that the closures were no longer needed for cod, yellowtail flounder, and other fish that dwell on the bottom of the ocean to thrive.
“We think this should have a positive impact on the future of the fishing industry, protecting valuable habitat while allowing for reasonable fishing opportunities,” said Terry Stockwell, chairman of the council, who didn’t vote.
The vote, part of a decade-long evaluation of whether the closures were in the proper places and whether they were still needed, pitted lobstermen against scallopers and ground fishermen.
Lobstermen are concerned that large female lobsters that help sustain the population in the region could be threatened by dredges and trawls that sweep up fish from the ocean floor.
Dave Preble, a council member who represents Rhode Island, sought to block the vote and urged his fellow councilors not to take action. He said recent studies have shown that the large females, called brood stock lobsters, would be vulnerable if the closed areas are reopened.
“This council has purposely ignored the science and produced an amendment that is indefensible,” Preble said after the vote. “If you want to have big fish, you have to feed and protect the small fish.”
Others on the council said they voted for the measure because it reflected the best compromise between fishing and conservation interests.
“The science of this is complex,” said Mike Sissenwine, a council member and a scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “This represented a difficult compromise between the needs of many segments of the fishing industry and the need to protect habitat.”
He and others noted that the council also voted to ban commercial ground fishing in parts of Massachusetts Bay for three months in the winter and two weeks in the spring to protect spawning areas of cod, flounder, and other ground fish.
The vote to open much of Georges Bank followed previous council votes this year for similar openings and closures elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine and along the Nantucket Shoals.
Tuesday’s vote comes as federal officials take drastic action to try to bolster cod. Over the past year, they have instituted an effective moratorium on fishing for cod, reducing quotas to the point that fishermen can only catch cod while trawling for other fish.
Federal assessments have found that cod have dwindled sharply in recent years, with estimates showing that there is as little as 3 percent of the number of cod that would sustain a healthy population.
Environmental advocates have said the council’s vote will make it harder to rebuild cod stocks.
“The council put short-term profits ahead of the needs of depleted ground fish,” said Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager for Oceana, an international marine conservation group based in Washington, D.C.
Peter Shelley, interim president of Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, called the vote a “devastating” loss.
“The council wrote off the future of critical fish habitat areas that needed additional, not fewer, protections,” he said.
Representatives of the fishing industry applauded the council’s vote, which they said could earn scallopers in the region more than $30 million a year.
Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which represents ground fishermen throughout New England, said the vote would be good for his members.
“It potentially opens areas that used to be very productive fishing grounds,” he said.
The vote will come down to a decision by John Bullard, the regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
He said his staff will be reviewing the science and would probably decide next year whether to approve the council’s decision.
“There are fundamental conflicts here, and that is the prime habitat is also the area most valuable to the scallop industry,” he said.