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Can Whales, Fishermen and the Shipping Industry Continue to Carry on in Rich Stellwagen Bank?

June 24, 2008

By Richard Gaines, Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.

Jun. 23–First of 3 parts

Fifteen years after Congress and the first President Bush established an ocean sanctuary just over the horizon from Gloucester, a struggle over Stellwagen Bank has begun.

It pits the agency charged with protecting the sanctuary against many of the interests from which it is being protected — notably commercial fishermen.

It also raises difficult questions about the meaning of the word “sanctuary” when applied to one of nature’s richest and most diverse neighborhoods — one that’s a sanctioned, convenient, essential producer of high-quality protein with fins, yet one that also happens to be a central park for the whale, and stretches across the main shipping lane between New England and Europe.

Because of Stellwagen’s singular blessings and curses — carved out by geology, geography and history — the struggle demonstrates how far we’ve come, and yet how far there is to go to find productive peace with our environment.

Inside the 842 square miles of the sanctuary — a watery national park, if you will, the size of Essex County, and home to more than 575 species of flora and fauna, 80 fish, 30 seabird and 20 mammal species — activities such as mining, drilling, dumping and exploring for oil and natural gas, and commercial development were initially prohibited.

The original draft environmental impact statement and management plan notes harebrained schemes to put huge salmon farms on the bank (and introduce a foreign species) or to add a gigantic, garish floating casino (“Gugel’s Arabian Nights,”) and seems to place the founding of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in an ancient epoch rather than the previous decade.

It was so long ago that commercial fishermen and environmentalists were actual arm-in-arm allies in favor of the creation of the sanctuary.

“We started the process together with the Conservation Law Foundation,” said Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester-based Fishermen’s Wives Association.

By barring what many see as the most exploitive human behaviors — such as off-shore drilling — it was thought commercial and recreational fishing and boating industries such as whale watching and diving could go on unimpeded inside the sanctuary. And fishing is one activity the managing agency has not been allowed to regulate.

But flash forward 15 years: Now comes the agency created to manage Stellwagen’s 842 square miles with a thick report of a lengthy scientific and observational study and a public education campaign that concludes a need to limit nearly all human activities on the bank and within its boundaries.

These include shipping, diving, whale watching, recreational fishing — even toilet flushing. But of all the perceived harmful effects on Stellwagen’s health and stability, the one of highest concern to the managing agency comes from commercial fishing.

“We’re looking to do things differently,” Craig MacDonald, superintendent of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, told the Times in an interview last week. “The status quo is not helpful. We’re looking to restore the biological community.”

It was commercial fishing that literally put Stellwagen on the map — a spot about 10 miles east of and equidistant from Gloucester and Provincetown. On explorer John Smith’s 1616 map of New England is drawn a square rigger — the icon of the times for a good place to fish.

A pile of cod heads below the boat-icon was added to a 1635 edition of the map to emphasize the fishing possibilities that were there.

To this day, much of the region’s commercial fishing energy remains directed at the rich bank — the uplifted plateau at the center of the sanctuary, and it’s largely for the same reason the whales congregate there — it’s where the fish are. But it’s also because of the way the Gulf of Maine fishery has been managed from before the sanctuary’s creation to the present.

The thrust of policies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to save and revitalize the entire Gulf of Maine and North Atlantic fishery — notably through catch limits and limited days at sea — have been to discourage off-shore fishing and time spent traveling to the grounds.

The result has been the consolidation in Gloucester of much of the reduced commercial fishing activity that there still is along the Gulf. The nation’s oldest fishing port is also the closest to Stellwagen’s riches.

“(NOAA Policies) have put more fishing on Stellwagen,” David Goethel said of the management policies. The owner and captain of the Ellen Diane, a 44-foot stern dragger, Goethel has shifted his base of operation from Hampton, N.H., to Gloucester in response to rolling closures of the grounds closer to his home.

A member of the New England Fisheries Management Council, which advises NOAA on fisheries policy, Goethel counts nine other boats from New Hampshire, two from Maine and three or four from Newburyport that, like his, have been moved here to share the harbor with the 50 or so Gloucester-based boats that day-trip between Stellwagen and the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.

Vessel trip figures in the agency’s draft management report and environmental assessments verify Goethel’s observation.

Landings in Essex County — effectively Gloucester — from Stellwagen have increased gradually over the last decade from 65 percent of 22.7 million tons in 1997. By 2005, the last year for which figures were presented, 75 percent of the 24.2 million tons taken from Stellwagen were landed in Gloucester and sold at auction for nearly $11 million.

Given those figures, it would be hard to overstate the importance of the commercial fleet’s continued access to Stellwagen because they remain barred from so many other fisheries while NOAA protects them until their populations are healthy again.

“The one human activity that is heavily regulated in Stellwagen is commercial fishing,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, a multi-state industry group of boat owners and shoreside businesses.

Odell noted that 22 percent of Stellwagen overlaps the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area, which has been off-limits for commercial groundfishing for nine years. She added that, since 2006, each day of fishing in Stellwagen counts for two against 42 days allowed.

Since its founding, management of Stellwagen by the small agency within NOAA and based in Scituate has been passive, studious. But in recent days, MacDonald has hosted a series of eight public meetings in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, where he presented the results of his agency’s four-year study and the case for aggressive management of human activities inside the sanctuary — especially commercial fishing.

At the start of each forum, supported by a vivid slide show that featured Stellwagen’s royalty — animated humpback whales — MacDonald delivered a half-hour lecture that guided imaginations through a cataloging of the bank’s infinitely fascinating ecology, geology and history.

So remarkable is Stellwagen — a watery Garden of Eden that has become something of a Times Square along the main North Atlantic shipping lane between the tips of the two capes — there was barely time for MacDonald to discuss the underlying regulatory proposals.

But it is there — in the 32-page brochure, and 368-page draft management report, in print or CD form, downloadable from the sanctuary’s Web site (http://stellwagen.noaa.gov).

The first seven of the 11 “key findings” outlined in the brochure are “facts” about the effects of fishing.

“Fishing — especially commercial fishing — impacts and pressures every resource state in the sanctuary,” reads the first finding, which MacDonald summarized in a Portsmouth, N.H., presentation last Monday night. “On an annual basis, virtually every square kilometer of the sanctuary is physically disturbed by fishing, and fishing has removed almost all of the big old-growth individuals among biologically important fish populations, reshaping biological communities and habitats in the process.”

The text contrasted the “historic exploitation of the whales and fish on Stellwagen” with a “modern appreciation” of the resources that require protection.

After he finished, it was time for public comments. A representative of the Conservation Law Foundation went first.

The one-time ally of the fishermen was put on record as wanting MacDonald’s agency to control “all commercial activities,” notably commercial fishing. She called Stellwagen a “sanctuary in name only” that was being ripped up by “bottomtrawling.”

The foundation’s more formal position is available at its Web site. It calls for full protection of the wildlife and habitat areas “where extractive and otherwise harmful activities would be prohibited.”

Soon after came Gloucester’s Angela Sanfilippo speaking on behalf of the fishermen and their wives.

She said she resented the idea that it took modern enlightenment to recognize the value of protecting the bank.

“The coordinates were drawn by my husband,” she said, “to create a sanctuary — to be protected not from fishing, (but) from pollution.”

Coming tomorrow: Part II: Behind the draft management plan — and its findings.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com

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