PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Federal fishery regulators say they will keep much-debated protections for Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine in place as part of a broad effort to alter the scope of New England's fishing grounds.
The decision to preserve Cashes Ledge came as the New England Fishery Management Council debated changes to habitat protections in the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, southern New England waters and other key fishing areas.
The council met Wednesday and Thursday to approve pieces of the long-awaited habitat plan. The changes will impact the way fishermen harvest key food species — including cod, clams and scallops — in federal waters from Maine to Rhode Island.
The preservation of Cashes Ledge represented a victory for environmentalists who ardently opposed opening it to fishing. The ledge is an underwater mountain and offshore ecosystem mostly closed to fishing, and the council voted that its protections will remain.
The council also allowed fishermen new access to some fishing areas, including some in the Great South Channel east of Nantucket. The council did not reach a decision on some pieces of the plan, and will revisit them at a June meeting.
Peter Baker, director of northeast U.S. Oceans for Pew Charitable Trusts, said that with the recent approvals, the council remains "on a course to eliminate thousands of square miles of important fish habitat areas" in favor of commercial fishing concerns. He said the council has ignored conservationists' and scientists' "pleas for long-term sustainability in favor of the short-term interests of some in the fishing industry."
But Maggie Raymond, executive director of the Associated Fishermen of Maine, said fishermen of species such as cod and haddock will need access to Georges Bank in part because the council is keeping parts of the Gulf of Maine closed.
"We need alternatives on Georges Bank to access healthy stocks," she said.
Regulators at least temporarily backed away from a proposal to reconfigure habitat closures in Georges Bank, a key fishing area off of Massachusetts that is home to cod, scallops, clams, lobsters and other economically important species. The council held over its decision about habitat in the area until its meeting starting June 16.
The council approved a new management package that delineates a large area east of Nantucket, in the Great South Channel, for changes that provide an exemption for dredging for surf clams under some circumstances. It also backed off a proposal to create a no-fishing zone for scientific research in Stellwagen Bank, which is between Cape Cod and Cape Ann.
Thursday's votes are subject to final approval in June and must also be accepted by federal Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker before going into effect.