Editor's Notes
Visionaries: An eye toward the future

New version of ESIP monitoring map available

Gulf Voices
A day on Great Bay: In search of the osprey

Science Insights
Dam removal

Profile: Dale Joachim of MIT’s Project Owl

Visionaries: Protecting the future of the Gulf of Maine

Book Review
Soaring with Fidel

Inside the Gulf of Maine Closure Area

Shipping lanes shifted to protect whales

Visionaries in the Gulf of Maine

Ocean Tracking Network to shed light on undersea life

Ambassador for his species: If a whale could speak

On the trail of invasive species

In the News
- Outside the Gulf
- Sappi Paper to remove dam on Presumpscot River
- MIT builds robotic fin for submersible vehicles
- New Brunswick to restore Petitcodiac River
- New Brunswick, Nova Scotia to jointly study Fundy tides

Off Limits: Inside the Gulf of Maine Closure Area
By Kirsten Weir
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Untold generations of New England fishermen have made their livings in the fish-rich waters of Jeffrey’s Ledge. Left behind by a glacier at the end of the ice age, the rocky ledge roughly parallels the coast for 33 miles or 53 kilometers from Massachusetts to Maine. The ledge itself is relatively shallow, but its edges drop off sharply. At these margins, currents well up from the depths, carrying nutrients that fuel a diverse marine ecosystem.

Over the last decade, however, tightened fishing regulations have placed much of this storied ledge off-limits to commercial fishermen. Now, scientists and fisheries managers are taking a careful look at the Western Gulf of Maine Closure Area, hoping to understand how it has affected both the fishing industry and the ecosystem. In March 2007, scientists, regulators, fishermen and others met at a symposium at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) to discuss the effects of the closure.

The number of cod in the Gulf of Maine plummeted by nearly half from 1986 to 1996. Hoping to stem the crisis, the New England Fishery Management Council implemented a number of regulations, from increasing the size of mesh used in nets to limiting the number of days fishermen could spend at sea. In 1998, the Management Council created the Western Gulf of Maine Closure Area. The 1,100-square-mile (2,849-square-kilometer) zone, containing much of Jeffrey’s Ledge, was closed to commercial groundfishing.

Habitat protection
Initially, the closure was established simply to reduce the number of cod being caught, Tom Nies, a senior fishery analyst at the Management Council, told the symposium audience. “It was chosen to be closed because people were catching a lot of fish there,” he said. The Council’s original plan was to shut the area for three years. But over the years, a series of amendments extended the closure indefinitely and added an explicit habitat-protection component as well. The Western Gulf of Maine Closure Area’s goals now include protecting essential fish habitat in addition to allowing cod stocks to rebuild.

Nine years after the closure area was established, scientists are beginning to understand the effects it has had on the habitat and the fishery. But piecing together the puzzle is no small task. Possible effects of the closure are confusingly intertwined with the effects of regulations on net mesh sizes, days-at-sea limitations and catch limits. Also, as Gulf of Maine Research Institute scientist Jonathan Grabowski pointed out, no detailed baseline studies were done before the area was closed. Scientists can compare habitat inside and outside the closure, but they can’t compare present conditions there to those of the recent past.

Still, scientists are starting to draw some broad conclusions. For instance, UNH zoologist Ray Grizzle found that on the rocky seafloor habitat common to Jeffrey’s Ledge, invertebrate creatures such as sea squirts, sponges and anemones were more abundant inside the closure than just outside it.

“There’s a basic understanding that the habitats are recovering,” Grabowski explained in an interview. Still, it’s not clear how that recovery is affecting cod and other commercially important groundfish. He’s studied how the closure may affect juvenile fish. In general, he said, juvenile groundfish tend to hang out in structured habitat, the gravely bottoms and rocky ledges where they can hide from predators and forage for food. But the link between seafloor recovery and the health of groundfish populations isn’t straightforward. In separate studies, both Grizzle and Grabowski caught cod inside the closure area, but they both hauled in fewer juveniles than they expected to find.

Impact on adult groundfish
Other researchers have focused on adult fish. Recent studies have suggested the closure area has had little impact on the movement patterns of adult groundfish in the region. Cod in particular are very mobile and may not be spending enough time inside the closure area to reap the benefits of protection.

While the jury is still out on whether cod benefit from the closure, evidence suggests that local fishermen may not. At the UNH symposium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology anthropologist Madeline Hall-Arber said she has found that increasingly strict fishing regulations have created hardships for the owners of small vessels, and placing much of Jeffrey’s Ledge off-limits has affected the way many have fished for generations. For example, she said, the closure has encouraged small boats to fish farther offshore than is safe for vessels of their size.

Hall-Arber said many fishermen recognize the importance of rebuilding the fish populations, but they’d like to be sure that the regulatory red tape is having a positive impact. When it comes to the closure area, it may be a while before the picture is clear. Researchers agree that more work is needed to understand the closure’s impact. For now, it remains closed indefinitely.

“You can often document changes in the habitat. You can see more things growing on the bottom, more diversity of species,” Nies of the New England Fisheries Management Council said in an interview. “The big question that is hard to unravel is ‘What does it do to the [groundfish] resource as a whole?’ Quite honestly, I think it’s going to take time to figure out the answers.”

Kirsten Weir is a free-lance writer in Saco, Maine, who focuses on science, health, and the environment.

For additional info about the Gulf of Maine including maps, photos, current research, the NGO database, and to download other educational
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