The potential of the Gulf of Maine

Over the past year, Cashes Ledge and several canyons and seamounts on or near the southern edge of Georges Bank have been proposed as national monuments. We won’t know the outcome for sure until January 2017, but the question remains: Is there a need for a few carefully selected areas in the Gulf of Maine with permanent protection from natural resource use? I believe the answer is yes.

16Aug A letter from the chairman LR

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My family’s business, Diversified Communications, has served the commercial fishing and seafood industries for over 45 years, through the publication of National Fisherman, Pacific Marine Expo, and the Seafood Expos in Boston and Brussels. Our connections with the commercial fishing and seafood industries have been sources of inspiration and pride for us. 

Because we are based in Maine, we are especially close to events in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, since 1969 when NF was first launched, many trends in environmental health, fish stocks and the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf of Maine have not been good. In the 1960s and early ’70s, groundfish stocks were overfished by foreign fleets. There was a rebound after passage of the Magnuson Act, but then a renewed decline in spawning biomass set in. Even now many stocks remain depleted, and the commercial fishing industry is, as well.

There have been meaningful steps toward rebuilding in recent years. The implementation of quotas has resulted in even more fishermen losing their livelihoods, but at least some stocks are healthy or rebuilding. Another source of encouragement has been the opening up of rivers, through dam removal and culvert replacement, allowing the potential rebuilding of forage fish such as alewives and blueback herring.

Still, the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and fisheries resources are far depleted from what they were centuries ago. We can’t go back in time, but what is the potential of the Gulf of Maine to support a healthy marine ecosystem and abundant fish stocks?

Perhaps places like Cashes Ledge can help answer that question. Because of its challenging topography and closure in the past dozen years, Cashes Ledge supports a unique and vibrant ecosystem. It’s known for healthy bottom flora and fauna, and diverse, abundant, and large-sized finfish. There is no other area in the Gulf of Maine that gives as good an example of what the ecosystem and fishery could look like in relatively natural conditions.

Compare the Gulf of Maine to New England’s forests. Most of them are harvested, but what if there were no ecological reserves whatsoever? No Baxter State Park, Acadia or White Mountain National Forest? That is the situation we have in the Gulf of Maine (with Stellwagen Bank open to most uses). 

We need at least a few areas in the marine environment that are relatively free from human influence, where we can see what will grow on the bottom, what marine species will congregate, how big species will get, what biomass it can support, and many other things. That’s why over 200 marine scientists wrote in support of designating Cashes Ledge as a national monument.

There has been justifiable concern with the top-down nature of the monument designation process. But the need for protected areas is compelling, and no other process is likely to provide the kind of protection that is needed. The New England Fishery Management Council can close areas to commercial fishing, as it has done for Cashes Ledge, but such closures are not permanent. And the council has no authority over seabed mining, oil and gas drilling, and other uses. The ocean planning process will certainly provide much good information, and perhaps head off conflicts between user groups, but will not produce permanently protected areas.

The Gulf of Maine once supported a vibrant marine environment and vast fishery. As we continue to rebuild fish stocks to their true potential in the Gulf of Maine and its rivers, we need at least a few areas dedicated to preserving marine life in all its forms. Maybe those areas can tell us important things about management in the rest of the gulf. That is why we encourage the administration, and those who have expressed opposition to the designations, to reconsider and support the designation of Cashes Ledge and the canyons and seamounts as marine monuments.

Daniel Hildreth 
Chairman of the Board 
Diversified Communications

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