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SOUTH SHORE

Proposed fishing closure draws protests

A 55-square-mile expanse in the Atlantic Ocean prized by anglers and charter boat companies would be off limits to recreational fishing for some of the most popular species under a research proposal that has aroused concern along the South Shore.

“I don’t like being shut out of any place, especially the open ocean,” said Rick McAndrews, a Carver resident who regularly fishes out of Duxbury. “This is an excellent area.”

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The proposed closure area is about 30 miles off the coast, most of it within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a 638-square-mile area that stretches from Cape Ann to Cape Cod.

The zone is part of 342 square miles that would become a “dedicated habitat research area’’ under the plan being considered by the New England Fishery Management Council, which makes recommendations for the region’s waters under federal control.

Commercial fishing boats are already barred from catching groundfish in the proposed closure area.

The groundfish category, covering species that spend most of their time at or near the seabed, includes cod, flounder, haddock, and pollock. The proposal would extend the groundfish restriction to charter vessels and personal boats used by recreational anglers.

The rules would not prohibit fishing for other species, which in the proposed area would consist mainly of bluefin tuna and sharks. But groundfish species are the main draw for most recreational fishermen.

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“We have a limited base of customers, and they want to fish for groundfish,” said Richard Antonino, a charter boat captain from Plymouth.

“When I talk to people about fishing in New England, they think about . . . cod, predominantly, and then other groundfish. If they can’t fish here for groundfish, they won’t come to fish for anything else.”

The proposed restrictions, which have the backing of sanctuary officials, is intended to enable researchers to study groundfish and their habitats in an area where fishing is not part of the equation. Recreational fishing is allowed in other areas closed to commercial fishing.

“The real question is, does having areas where you don’t take any groundfish result in more groundfish production than you can expect in other areas?” said Michelle Bachman, chairwoman of the management council’s habitat plan-development team.

“The problem the council and the fishermen are facing in this region now is a very low abundance of some of these groundfish species, so it’s in everyone’s interest to figure out ways we can increase the numbers,” she said.

But many in the region’s active recreational fishing community question why the council would select this area.

“I have no idea how they came to think closing this area would achieve their goal, if they have a goal,” said Stewart Rosen, a recreational fisherman from Scituate. He said the targeted area is “where all of us fish . . . because it’s the only place there is fish.”

Peter Belsan, owner of Belsan Bait and Tackle in Scituate, said: “I’ve been fishing since I was a kid and I think it’s wrong what they are trying to do — taking away fishing from people who have worked hard and made this community commercially and recreationally a nice little fishing seaside town.”

Charter boat captains have been particularly vocal in condemning the plan.

Marshfield resident Steven James, president of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association, said the closure zone is an area “that is absolutely critical to the charter boat guys and . . . to the recreational guys. This is where we fish. It’s almost like saying we are going to shut down Kenmore Square to study the impact of college students on the environment.”

More than 100 people attended a recent Marshfield meeting organized by the association to discuss the proposal, said James, a charter boat owner and commercial fisherman who has long been involved with fisheries management issues.

Charter boat captains are “very, very concerned about being put out of business,” said James, noting that under the proposal, boats might have to travel another 30 miles round trip to catch fish — on top of the 50 to 60 miles they currently travel.

Bachman said the council will include economic and social effects when assessing the proposal.

She observed, though, that the closure area “was intended to encompass where people are fishing now” in order for the research study’s results to be meaningful.

“And given that these fish don’t stay still, the size of the area was the minimum necessary’’ for a proper evaluation, she added.

The plan is expected to be part of a package of habitat management changes that the council is to formally propose next month. Public hearings are planned for late winter, and the council would then forward the package with any revisions to the National Marine Fisheries Service to consider.

The fishing area’s closure would take effect late next year or early in 2015, then expire after three years, although it could be renewed, officials said.

Antonino, whose boat is based at Green Harbor in Marshfield, said charter boats were already hard hit by 2011 federal fishing rules that resulted in large commercial boats catching most of the fish closer to shore. Recreational boats that previously found ample fish 16 miles or so offshore have had to travel farther to find fish, he said, prompting them to make greater use of the proposed closure area.

The charter boat industry “really depends on that area for their catches, for our customers. Right now, there’s no commercial pressure in that area,” he said.

Mike Connolly, manager of Green Harbor Marina, said the fishing area’s closure would hurt the entire coastal economy, including marinas, which were already suffering in the recession.

“Not only us,’’ he said, “but all coastal businesses — restaurants, bait shops, pretty much everyone down around here depend on these fishermen to be around, and buzzing around these boats.’’

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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