The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is reviewing the proposal from the New England Fishery Management Council, a quasi-governmental agency responsible for management of federal fisheries. The plan could result in restoring some commercial fishing in portions of the ocean that have been off-limits, some for nearly 20 years.
NOAA is expected to act on the proposal before June.
The plan is facing stiff opposition from parts of the fishing industry, environmentalists and conservationists.
The closed areas cover nearly 8,500 square miles of New England’s seafloor, but proposed changes would reduce this by more than half. More than 5,000 square miles could be reopened, including parts of Cache’s Ledge and the Western Gulf of Maine — the two areas that affect most coastal fishermen in the state.
Also changed would be two areas off Massachusetts and Rhode Island and Nantucket Lightship to the southeast. All were established in the 1990s to protect juvenile fish, spawning areas and seafloor habitat. They also provide benefits to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and harbor porpoises.
If approved, the proposal would not automatically open all parts of the specific closed areas to anyone who wished to do commercial fishing there, said Maggie Mooney-Sues, communications officer for NOAA. It would give fishing cooperatives, known as sectors, the opportunity to ask for permission to go into those closed areas, and review of the requests would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
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