Metro

Fishing officials ease restrictions in waters off New England

The opening of one area east of Nantucket could allow fishermen to catch as much as $160 million worth of additional scallops in the coming fishing season, regulators estimate.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
The opening of one area east of Nantucket could allow fishermen to catch as much as $160 million worth of additional scallops in the coming fishing season, regulators estimate.

After 15 years of research and deliberation, federal fishing officials this week approved a landmark set of regulations that will open a large swath of the region’s waters to fishing while maintaining other closures to protect vulnerable species.

The opening of one area east of Nantucket, closed since the 1990s, could be extremely lucrative, allowing fishermen to catch as much as $160 million worth of additional scallops in the coming fishing season, regulators estimate.

“The scallop industry is thrilled to be able to access significant scallop beds,” said Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney at the Fisheries Survival Fund in Washington D.C., which represents the scallop industry. “Allowing rotational scallop fishing on these areas will increase the scallop fishery revenue in the short term and in the long run.”

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Yet many in the industry had hoped that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would go further.

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Minkiewicz and others objected to the decision to maintain the ban on fishing on the northern edge of Georges Bank, where there are significant amounts of scallops but also vulnerable species such as juvenile cod.

Minkiewicz said the industry would continue to press NOAA to reconsider opening those fishing grounds.

“The scallop industry respectfully disagrees with [NOAA’s] conclusion that allowing limited scallop fishing [there] . . . was not consistent with the law,” he said.

NOAA officials said that opening such areas could be harmful to some fish.

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“We think these are groundbreaking regulations,” said John Bullard, NOAA’s outgoing regional administrator, who issued the regulations as one of his last acts on the job. “It puts the focus on the quality of the habitat protected — not the quantity, or how many square miles were protected.”

Bullard said the regulations also protect other areas in the Gulf of Maine, such as Cashes Ledge, where multicolored anemones and cod the size of refrigerators swim amid glacier-sculpted underwater mountains and billowy kelp forests.

He defended his decision to keep closed the valuable fishing grounds on the northern edge of Georges Bank, east of Cape Cod.

“We felt that it was too important habitat for cod, and that the mitigation in the plan was not sufficient to offset the harm being done to that habitat,” he said.

If the New England Fisheries Management Council, which oversees much of the region’s fishing issues, revised its plan to protect cod in the area, NOAA would reconsider the closure, he said. NOAA has the final say over Council decisions.

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Environmental advocates praised NOAA for maintaining the closure on Georges Bank, despite sustained pressure from scallopers.

Opening the area to fishing would have “weakened the chances of recovery for the historic groundfish fishery, wreaking more havoc on Atlantic cod populations that have been heavily overfished in recent years,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst for Oceana, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.

He also lauded the agency for establishing another protected area in the Great South Channel between Cape Cod and Georges Bank, also known as a nursery for young cod.

State and federal surveys have found that the region’s cod population has plummeted by about 80 percent over the past decade, when it was already below what was considered a healthy population.

“Protecting known nurseries from destructive fishing gear makes good sense for the fish and for the fishery,” Brogan said. “This area will now help ensure the continued survival of species like Atlantic cod, haddock, and flounder for years to come.”

In New Bedford, which has been the nation’s highest-valued port for the past 17 years because of its scallop catch, officials had mixed feelings about the new regulations.

While they worried about the impact of the sustained closures on fishermen, they looked forward to the promise of a greater catch of scallops. In 2016, New Bedford fishermen landed $327 million worth of seafood, more than three-quarters of it from scallops.

“Although the benefits to the clam and groundfish industries appear to be modest, the newly opened scallop grounds will lead to significantly higher landings of New Bedford’s most lucrative catch,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said in a statement.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.