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Vol. 4, No. 3


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Protecting Troubled Waters
Concerns spur calls for MPA plan

In the world according to the precautionary principle, efforts to reduce or eliminate threats to the environment are undertaken before it is too late. But when it comes to the political and biological complexities of the marine environment, this noble, "better safe than sorry" concept, adopted by resource managers worldwide, is often mired in frustration. 

With that in mind, a growing number of scientists and conservation groups are calling for a coordinated plan to safeguard the marine integrity of the Gulf of Maine. The idea is to establish a system of marine protected areas, or MPAs, that would serve a broad range of purposes. 

A topic of intense debate, MPAs are designated areas of estuaries, oceans and coastal waters granted legal status and protection. While traditional ways to manage the oceans have focused primarily on conserving the recreational or commercial uses of the sea, MPAs take into account all the living elements within a defined natural marine system. They are used increasingly worldwide to counteract the effects of overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution. 

Map courtesy of R. Signell and E. Rowarth, U.S. Geological Survey
Bathymetric map of Gulf of Maine 
(click for larger image).

Supporters in the Gulf of Maine say an MPA plan would complement other management tools already in place like closing areas to replenish fish stocks and imposing catch limits. Though there is no Gulfwide consensus about what the system would look like or how it might be managed, several recent initiatives to move the process forward include a report released by the Conservation Law Foundation calling for a network of MPAs, and a proposal to create an ocean wilderness area 20 miles (32 kilometers) wide along the international border between Canada and the United States. Last year a group of 21 scientists released a map of marine areas in New England recommended for protection. The exercise was part of a two-day workshop to build support for protected areas in the Gulf of Maine. 

A major boost for the idea came in May when President Clinton signed an executive order to establish a national system of marine protected areas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Interior are in the early stages of creating a Marine Protected Area center to develop a framework for the new national system. (To find out more information about its progress visit http://

Bradley W. Barr, a senior policy analyst for NOAA and the former director of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) in Massachusetts, says the executive order "is forcing agencies to work together," to define marine protected areas. Barr, who has promoted the benefits of a system-wide approach to MPAs for years, says the science and technologies to help create the blueprint are already in place. 

"It's just a question of getting people going in the right direction," he says.

MPAs have been used in the Gulf of Maine for years, in one form or another, to protect sensitive places such as spawning areas or nursing grounds, reduce pollution, restore marine life, or for research and educational purposes. But supporters of an MPA plan say a "piecemeal" design leaves too many gaps, does not reflect the overall structure of the Gulf of Maine and will not produce the ecosystem benefits that a coordinated system would provide.

Protections of sanctuaries fall short

Conservationists and some scientists have referred to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary as a misnomer and an example of the limited restrictions over use in legally protected areas. While the U.S. government protects Stellwagen from mineral oil and gas exploration, it allows fishing methods like bottom trawling and dredging. Although scientific documentation is incomplete, studies show that mobile fishing gear reduces habitat complexity and destroys indigenous species such as deep-sea corals, brittle stars, sponges and anemones. By eliminating smaller marine life, boulders and other structures on the seabed, fishing gear can destroy hideaways and feeding places for fish.

To assess the impact of trawling and other human activities on the seafloor of Stellwagen Bank, scientists are deploying remotely operated vehicles and drop cameras which allow for real time observations and video taping of the bottom. Seafloor mapping technologies, using multi-beam sonar equipment, are also helping researchers learn about the natural and human forces altering the bottom and how these changes may affect fish and other animals that live there. 

"There is global evidence that bottom gear does damage the seafloor by flattening it, creating a homogenous area without complexity," says Kate Van Dine, the project manager for SBNMS.

The question remains, she says, whether the activity creates such changes in bottom habitat, "that the area won't be able to maintain the mix of species existing there." 

Established in 1992 through the National Marine Sanctuary Act, Stellwagen is undergoing a mandated management review that should be completed next year. Van Dine, who is managing the review plan, says habitat damage due to fishing practices is a large concern, adding that the question of whether to limit certain practices is a delicate one. Unlike other large fishing areas, such as California where the legislature has mandated the formation of MPAs that include a network of fishing-free zones, the fishing community in the Gulf of Maine has been reluctant to embrace restrictions. Van Dine says much of the resistance is deeply rooted in socioeconomic values.

The business of fishing and the romance of the sea have been an integral part of the region's character, she says, "It is how we have defined ourselves." Nevertheless, she adds, "Given the essential role the ocean plays in the environmental health of the planet, we've got to start looking at oceans as more than just a fisheries resource, but as a something that belongs to all citizens." 

Another key issue of concern is marine mammal protection. Fishing gear entanglements and collisions with whale watching boats and other recreational and commercial vessels have caused injuries to whales and pose ongoing problems. Stellwagen Bank is one of the most concentrated whale watching centers in North America. Van Dine says the review will examine ways to regulate boat and whale interactions.

Other issues include water quality, noise levels and discussing the role the santuary might play in a regional network of MPAs, Van Dine says. 

MPAs the right tool?

Michael Pentony, a fishery analyst for the New England Fishery Management Council, says fishermen have become less resistant to the temporary closing of areas to replenish specific stocks, but do not trust the idea of marine protected areas. "Fishermen see them as an additional layer of regulations," he says. "MPAs are often portrayed as this easy solution without giving full consideration to the wide variety of problems." 

Though studies show that MPAs can benefit stocks, Pentony noted, much of the research comes from areas with concentrations of coral reefs such as the Caribbean, where the seafloor is distinctly different than the Gulf of Maine.

Before the Gulf of Maine community decides to embark on a system of MPAs, he says, it is key to find out, "what the objectives are, what problems are to be solved—with the least impact on the fisheries, and what tools are already available. MPAs may not be the most appropriate tool."

Hubert Saulnier, the director of the Gillnet Association of the Maritime Fishermen's Union in Nova Scotia, says one way to get fishermen to change their stance is to involve them in the process of defining what MPAs do and how to make them work. Saulnier and the 18 members of his association are using modified gillnet gear supplied by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), designed to allow an entangled whale to break away. Some in the fishing community say using the modified fishing gear in addition to current restrictions is as effective as designating protected areas. 

Saulnier says he is not opposed to all MPAs and agrees, in principle, with establishing a Gulf of Maine International Ocean Wilderness along the Hague Line, which separates Canada and the United States. Supporters say, if left alone, the area would develop a prolific community of marine life creating a "larval export reserve" that could improve productivity for the rest of the Gulf. It could also ease tensions that may arise between the two sides. 

"We've always supported some protection around the Hague Line as a no-fishing buffer zone," Saulnier says. A native of Saulnierville, Nova Scotia, where his family has fished since the 18th century, he adds that it is sensible to protect the environment, "But if you start taking food off someone's table, that's when we get ticked off." 

The thought of an entire system of MPAs makes fishermen nervous, he adds. "One or two, that's okay. But then they're going to want more. And if they close my fishery what am I going to do? It's not as if I can just pick my family up and move to New Brunswick or Maine and be accepted as a fisherman over there. Fishing is not that kind of business." 

The prospect of that happening in the Bay of Fundy is unlikely. In Canada, DFO is mandated to identify, designate and establish MPAs under Canada's Oceans Act of 1996. Candidate sites for MPAs may be nominated by interest groups or through DFO overview. Nominators are required to organize broad community support, especially from those such as fishermen who may regard the MPA as a potential threat.