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Vol. 3, No. 2

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Proponents: Hague Line reserve would help ecosystem, fisheries

Gulf of Maine ---- Supporters of a proposal to establish a marine reserve along the boundary dividing the Gulf's US and Canadian waters say prohibiting fishing and other activities there would help to regenerate commercial fisheries and provide valuable research areas.

IMAGE: Hague LineDescribing the logistics of establishing a multinational marine reserve as formidable, but not insurmountable, proponents cite their biggest difficulty as winning public support for the proposal, especially among marine users. Many commercial fishermen, for example, dread more restrictions on where they can fish in the Gulf.

According to Ron Huber, Director of the Coastal Waters Project (CWP) in Rockland, Maine, that organization, along with Canadian and US researchers, is pushing for designation of a marine reserve on the Hague Line, the international boundary established by the International Court of Justice in the Hague, the Netherlands. The reserve would define a strip of ocean about 200 miles (320 kilometers) long and a little more than six miles (10 kilometers) wide, stretching from the top of Jordan Basin through Georges Bank.

Huber said the reserve would protect diverse types of habitat that are home to an extensive array of species, possibly including some undiscovered ones. Left alone to recover from human activity, he said, the site would become a treasure trove for researchers studying "what a natural ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine is supposed to be like." He called this "essential for wise management of offshore fishing, mining, and oil drilling."

During a workshop at the New England Aquarium in April organized by the Marine Conservation Biology Institute based in Redmond, Washington, an international group of marine scientists identified 29 percent of the seabed in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank as top priority areas for protection due to their "exceptional biological resources." According to Martin Willison, Professor of Biology and Environ-mental Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a proponent of establishing a Hague Line reserve, the group determined that "the greatest concentration of areas suitable for the protection of species and communities at risk lies on the Hague Line."

Marine protected areas

The Hague Line reserve would fall under the classification of a marine protected area (MPA), a generic term describing any terrain below the high tide line that is protected by any legislation, regulation, or ordinance to conserve biodiversity or to promote study or sustainable use of its ecosystem. Tidal flats, marine mammal or rare species habitat, spawning and nursery areas, estuary zones, kelp forests, salt marshes, and other features are potential candidates for designation as marine protected areas.

The degree of protection provided by MPA designation can vary "from temporary fishery closures up to permanent closed areas from which nothing will be extracted," including fish, oil, gas, or gravel, explained Willison, who is working with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to identify and address the research necessary to establish a system of MPAs in Canada under its federal Oceans Act.

According to the International Marine Mammal Association, based in Guelph, Ontario, more than 1,300 sites in the world's oceans receive some degree of protection as marine reserves, parks, sanctuaries, and conservation areas. But conservation organizations are calling for more. The Washington, DC-based Center for Marine Conservation is urging expansion of US efforts to conserve marine protected areas, and is calling for more funding for programs that support them.

Why the Hague Line

A Hague Line reserve, Willison said, would be protected against oil drilling and fishing gear that drags on the ocean floor, but would not be closed to vessel traffic. He has also described the reserve as a "peace park," that would provide a buffer zone to help US and Canadian fishermen stay out of one another's fishing grounds. Huber noted that the Hague Line is routinely patrolled by the US and Canadian coast guards to prevent fish poaching and drug trafficking, so mechanisms are already in place to enforce protective designation.

Willison advocates that some areas of the ocean floor be left completely undisturbed to protect biodiversity. He explained that while fishing quotas may reduce pressure on certain species by limiting the number of individual organisms harvested, the restrictions don't protect residents of the ocean floor from damage caused by fishing gear, drilling, and other intrusions.

Proponents of the Hague Line reserve assert that banning fishing, drilling, and other activities within the proposed reserve area would allow bottom-dwelling species there to regenerate and spawn. Currents would then distribute that spawn elsewhere in the Gulf, reinvigorating fish stocks in areas open to fishing. "In a way these things can act like cornucopias," said Huber in describing marine protected areas.

Willison and American researcher Richard McGarvey determined several years ago through bioeconomic modeling that if parts of Georges Bank were closed to scalloping, allowing the shellfish to reach their reproductive peak at about 12 years of age, their populations would regenerate. Older scallops produce many more eggs than do younger ones, but scallops are routinely harvested well before they reach their reproductive peak, Willison said.

Huber said the resurgence of scallops on Georges Bank following closures to protect groundfish stocks there shows that closures do facilitate recovery ---- at least as far as scallops are concerned. Federal fisheries officials are scheduled to reopen areas of Georges Bank to scalloping in June, although groundfish closures there remain in effect.

Routes for designation

No precise recipe exists for establishing an international marine protected area such as the proposed Hague Line reserve, though the US and Canada have shared a transborder land park designated in the 1930s. It combines Glacier National Park in the US and Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park. Though there are some provincial and state pathways for establishing protected areas in their respective waters, most marine protected areas are designated though US or Canadian federal programs.

In the US, these include the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act; the Coastal Zone Management Act; and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Huber said he has presented the Hague Line proposal to the New England Fisheries Management Council, which is determining areas that should be covered by the US Essential Fish Habitat plan under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, with the hope that the plan may serve as a route for designating a Hague Line reserve. One area the management council has named a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) is on Georges Bank's Northern Edge. Huber describes this area as the "anchor" of the proposed reserve.

In Canada federal designation of marine protected areas can occur through its National Parks Act, its Canada Wildlife Act, and, most recently, its 1997 Oceans Act, which created a marine protected area policy and mandates development of a national MPA network.

Bob Rutherford, Acting Manager of Oceans Division of DFO's Maritimes Region, said DFO is trying out the new policy with a pilot site east of Sable Island. He noted that the department is also considering two other sites, one in Prince Edward Island, and one in Musquash Harbor just south of Saint John, New Brunswick. DFO said the three sites will help it test and refine the process for establishing MPAs before it takes on anything as complicated as the international Hague Line proposal.

Public support

Willison predicted that the public's level of interest in a Hague Line reserve will determine whether the Canadian and US governments will support and pursue it. "The public challenge is the biggest challenge, particularly with regard to the users of the environment," such as fishermen and oil and gas enterprises, he said.

Some groups in the Gulf of Maine are exploring how MPAs can be used as a tool for managing Gulf resources. The Gulf of Maine Council has facilitated a discussion, a workshop, and a survey about marine protected areas among those with a stake in the marine environment; has developed a database of existing protected coastal and marine areas, conservation zones, and restricted fishing areas in the Gulf; and has evaluated legal mechanisms for establishing MPAs.

Jennifer Atkinson, Staff Attorney in the Conservation Law Foundation's Rockland, Maine office, said a new group of MPA proponents is continuing and expanding on these MPA discussions. Its members include representatives of state and federal governments, nongovernmental groups, researchers, and a former fisherman. Although it currently consists only of US members, Atkinson said the group could decide to include Canadian representatives as well as other interested parties.

Canada offers more effective routes than the US for establishing marine protected areas, Atkinson asserted. In the US, she said, designations don't always effectively shield so-called "protected" areas. She noted that within Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, for example, while there are certain restrictions in place against extraction of sand and gravel, it is not closed to fishing. Stellwagen Bank spokesperson Anne Smrcina said the sanctuary is undergoing a five-year review of its management plan, which presents an opportunity for the public to express their concerns and suggest changes to the plan.

Concerns about restrictions

Needless to say, the idea of increasing restrictions in certain areas is alarming to some. Craig Pendleton, a fishing vessel owner and Executive Director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) based in Saco, Maine, anticipated that fishermen would not welcome the idea. "When you look at the closures right now and the ones coming up, half the Gulf of Maine is going to be closed so it's a struggle to find it in yourself to say, 'Yeah, sure, why don't you just close another place forever,' " he said.

Pendleton acknowledged that dragging fishing gear on the ocean floor disturbs it, but said he needs more proof that the practice is necessarily detrimental to the ecosystem as a whole. He noted that he continues to catch fish in the same place year after year, despite the effects his gear may be having on the sea floor.

Atkinson, who is active in NAMA, said there is no absolute proof, but she explained that marine protected areas represent a precautionary approach ---- one that can benefit the fishing industry. "It's important to set aside areas to understand what we are doing over time and how we are affecting the whole of the ecosystem," she said.

"We're asking for a tremendous leap of faith by industry," said Huber, "that the fishery gains achieved by marine reserves elsewhere are more or less what will happen here; that if we create large baseline protected areas in our offshore public lands, there will be benefits for them." Pendleton said he could support protecting certain areas as "generators," that produce more fish elsewhere. But, he said, "If it just builds plants and barnacles and looks pretty in pictures, that doesn't cut it for me."

"Right now marine protected areas are not something New England's fishing community wants to hear about," Atkinson acknowledged. "First we need to build on real successes, like the HAPC, to get support for what MPAs mean and what they are for ---- to help sustain a healthy ecosystem that supports a diversity of uses including fishing." She and Pendleton both voiced the need to involve the fishing community in discussions of MPAs.

There is a way to protect both fishermen and fish habitat, according to former fisherman Herb Hoche Jr. of Hope, Maine. A supporter of the Hague Line proposal, Hoche remembers catching scallops the size of dinner plates on Georges Bank in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and said the reason they were so large and plentiful was that "we were not dragging all over the place."

Hoche said advanced navigational instruments enable scallopers to see what's on the ocean floor, making it possible to drag more of the bottom than in years past, when fishermen avoided unfamiliar areas for fear of losing their gear. He proposed that scallopers reduce the amount of area they drag, and define specified "avenues" for dragging ----- just as drivers on land are supposed to confine themselves to driving on designated roadways leaving other areas undisturbed. "It makes a lot of sense to protect the habitat for the fish," Hoche said. "Unless the [juvenile fish] have a place to hide they'll never grow up. Where are they going to live if you're constantly stirring up the mud?"

Web sites for more information

Gulf of Maine Council

Marine Conservation Biology Institute

Center for Marine Conservation

World Wildlife Fund-Canada

New England Fishery Management Council

Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans or

US National Marine Fisheries Service