Removal of restrictions for an underwater national park sealed off from commercial fishing trawlers and lobstermen will now provide a bonanza of opportunities for fishing boats in Point Judith, said Fred Mattera, advocate for commercial fishing.
According to Mattera, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, this once lucrative fishing spot will now again enable them to bring back large hauls to be sold to for restaurants, grocery stores and ingredients for other foods.
Last Friday President Trump removed those restrictions and opened the area once more to fishing, but the decision has produced an outcry from various environmental groups warning of the potential destruction to unique marine life.
Called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, just off the New England coast, President Obama’s administration ended fishing there and closed off almost 5,000-square miles of ocean to prevent fishing there.
“There was never a need for it in the first place,” said Mattera, whose offices are located on the East Farm Campus of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is made of sprawling underwater mountain ranges and vast canyons. From the surface of the ocean, it’s impossible to see the vibrant Connecticut-size, deep-sea world unless you dive beneath the surface, according to National Geographic.
While commercial fisherman, such as those in Point Judith’s Port of Galilee, have been banned from the area, sportfishing has been allowed.
Because of the economic downturn from the coronavirus, commercial fishermen are seeking regulatory relief to help them through the pandemic, which closed restaurants and hotels, major purchasers of fish.
On May 7, the president announced a new initiative promoting economic growth of the American seafood industry. This action followed by a month.
Mattera maintained that the president’s decision “validates what our rationale was,” which centered on the position that the canyons are so deep and the seamounts so large that the giant fishing trawlers did not and would not tow through the area.
He also said that lobstermen dropping pots were putting only fixed objects in the region and posed no serious threat.
Mattera, who was a commercial fisherman for more than 40 years, said that scores of trawlers and large lobster boats traveled to the area – right near Georges Bank off the New England coast – for decades to fish. He expected them to now start returning.
Conservation groups said the return of fishing will hurt marine life, according to various national environmental groups, with one saying it is “ another nail in the coffin for both productive fisheries and healthy oceans in New England.”
“Instead of addressing the critical issues facing our nation, President Trump just gave the green light to wreak centuries-worth of damage to deep-sea corals, seamounts, canyons, and sea life that depend on this marine national monument for protection,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries analyst at Oceana.
He said that allowing all fishing back in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts and removing the phase out of the lobster and red crab fisheries, the hundreds of marine mammals that swim in the monument will be at increased risk of entanglement including the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
In addition, deep-sea coral and sponge gardens that are thousands of years old will also lose protection from damaging fishing gear, he added.
“Protecting deep-sea waters is a win-win for both fishermen and healthy oceans, as healthy oceans from the seafloor to the surface will help sustain robust fisheries for years to come,” he said.
“The creation or expansion of the national marine monument does not restrict the amount of fish available to commercial fishermen, only the area in which boats can catch fish has been modified.
Nothing indicates that fishing harvest has been harmed in the creation of any of the marine national monuments,” Brogan said.
Mattera disputes that and sees the opening for the Point Judith fleet as a boon that will help re-invigorate a multi-million market that was taken away when the area entered protected conservation status.
“We fishermen are conservationists, too. We know the value of preserving areas so that they help other marine life that is crucial to the support of our business. In this case, it was overreach,” he said.
“The mobile gear on the trawlers — it doesn’t go into those areas. It is too deep. There’s too many peaks and the nets would just get shredded. The lobster pots can go there and what harm is it doing just sitting there,” he said.
The re-opening will help the Galilee commercial boats because they’ll be able to go into areas that were shut off and that posed no dangers to the ecosystem, the fish or other marine life, he said.
“It’s all beneficial. The economic benefit of this that will be created will be tens of millions of dollars” spread among the fleets from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut that primarily use that area, he said.