Reopening New England’s Closed Fishing Areas Would Be Bad For Mammals, Too

In the early 1990’s, fisheries managers closed several fishing areas off New England. They closed these areas to help rebuild depleted fish populations of commercially important species of cod, haddock, and flounders. But these closed areas have also provided benefits for other ocean wildlife, like many of the region’s marine mammals– such as harbor porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and endangered humpback whales. [If you are ever in Maine, I highly recommend going whale watching to see these magnificent creatures up close!] Unfortunately, these protections for New England’s marine mammals are now in jeopardy.

New England’s closed areas protect marine mammal habitats and provide them year-round protection from fishing. Fishing operations can incidentally entangle marine mammals in their fishing gear, often killing or severely harming them. Without these protected areas, fishing entanglements of marine mammals would likely occur more often.

Right whale sightings (purple circles) are concentrated within many of New England’s closed areas (outlined in yellow). Map credit: Dr. Caroline Good

For example, these protected areas provide a great deal of protection for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale – sightings of this species show it often concentrates within several of New England’s closed areas (show in the map to the right).

Sightings of harbor porpoises also suggest some of the closed areas provide critical protection to them as well. This is good since New England’s gillnet fishermen for cod and haddock frequently catch harbor porpoises in their gear.

However, fisheries managers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are currently considering a proposed rule to reopen some of New England’s closed areas to fishing. Why? To give New England fishermen the opportunity to catch more fish and make up for the current lack of fish in the open fishing areas. Not only would opening up these closed areas put many of New England’s fish at risk (see previous post), it also puts endangered and protected marine mammals at risk! Is catching a few more fish really worth that risk?

Marine mammal conservations, scientists, and Maine’s whale watching businesses have been ardently writing to  fisheries managers, expressing their deep concerns about the potential negative effects on marine mammals if some of the current protected areas are removed. They warn we need to fully evaluate these effects before any areas are reopened. The current marine mammal management plans, developed to reduce incidental fishing catches of marine mammals, assume these protected areas are in place. So if the protections are removed, it could affect the management plans for several marine mammal species.

Hopefully fisheries managers are listening to these concerns and taking them seriously. We must consider how opening these long-standing closed areas will affect ALL ocean wildlife.


Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.

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