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International efforts to protect marine biodiversity through marine wilderness preservation in the Northwest Atlantic (New England). (Marine Matters).


Currently, marine diversity on the continental shelf in the Gulf of Maine has minimal protection from commercial activities. Last year, numerous environmental organizations, scientists, and other concerned citizens proposed a 20 by 178 nautical-mile marine protected area in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank ("Gulf of Maine") along the United States-Canadian international boundary (the "Hague line") to protect marine diversity. The marine protected area, the Gulf of Maine International Ocean Wilderness ("International Ocean Wilderness"), would straddle the Hague line -- ten miles on each side -- as it passes through the Gulf of Maine. The International Ocean Wilderness would include large portions of the five major habitat types that are representative of the Gulf of Maine and protect these areas from extractive fishing and non-fishing industrial activities. If designated, the International Ocean Wilderness would comprise only 6.2% of the total area in the Gulf of Maine, leaving most of it open to existing industrial activities. The International Ocean Wilderness would serve four principal functions: (1) preserving marine diversity; (2) preserving large areas of the five major habitat types; (3) protecting cultural and historical artifacts; and (4) providing control areas for future benthic ecological study. The International Ocean Wilderness would also provide the following incidental benefits: (1) enhancing important benthic fisheries, notably the scallop fishery, by leaving a subpopulation to grow to advanced adult ages at which egg production is much greater than by adults at average time of harvest in the present fishery; (2) protecting sensitive essential fish habitats from the effects of bottom-tending mobile gears; (3) providing a precautionary buffer from the effects of overfishing; and (4) providing a buffer zone along the Hague line to facilitate enforcement of this international boundary.


In 2000, numerous regional and national environmental organizations, scientists, and other concerned citizens petitioned the Clinton Administration in the United States and the Canadian Prime Minister to designate an international, cross-shelf ocean wilderness area in the Gulf of Maine to protect marine diversity. The proposed ocean wilderness area, the Gulf of Maine International Ocean Wilderness Area (GOMIOW), would start approximately 20 nautical miles from the northeasternmost point on the Maine coast and extend 178 nautical miles along the political boundary separating the US and Canadian Exclusive Economic Zones ("the Hague Line"), across the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, and out to the continental abyssal plain to depths greater than 4,000 meters. As a cross-shelf marine wilderness area, the GOMIOW would encompass representative portions of the five major habitat types found in the Gulf of Maine, including: (1) shallow-water glacial ridges; (2) deep-water basins within the Gulf of Maine; (3) shallow-water gravel and sand habitats on Georges Bank; (4) deep-sea canyons off Georges Bank; and (5) the continental abyssal plain.

The proponents claimed that the GOMIOW would serve three principal functions: (1) preserving marine diversity; (2) preserving large areas of the five major habitat types in the Gulf of Maine; and (3) providing control areas for future benthic ecological study. The GOMIOW would also provide the following incidental benefits: (1) enhancing important benthic fisheries, notably the scallop fishery, by leaving a subpopulation to grow to advanced adult ages that produce more eggs than adults in the present fishery; (2) protecting sensitive essential fish habitats (EFH) from the effects of bottom-tending mobile gears; (3) acting as a precautionary buffer against the effects of fishing and other commercial activities; and (4) providing a buffer zone along the Hague line to facilitate enforcement of this international boundary.

There are many examples of international transboundary protected areas on land (Zbicz and Green 1997), including five between the US and Canada, but in the marine environment, this conservation approach rarely has been tried. The few cases that exist are all coastal. If designated, the GOMIOW would be the first international ocean wilderness of its kind. It would encompass approximately 2,700 square nautical miles, or roughly 6% of the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Gulf of Maine. An area of similar size and relative proportion would be protected in the Canadian waters of the Gulf of Maine.

The need for the GOMIOW

With the exception of several small areas, such as the Dry Tortugas Ecosystem Reserve in Florida and state protected areas off the coast of California, no permanent reserves protect marine biodiversity in deep-water continental shelf systems in the US from fishing or other commercial practices that damage marine habitats (Brailovskaya 1998). At present, less than 1% of US territorial waters and less than 1% of the world's oceans are protected in reserves (NCEAS 2001).

In the Gulf of Maine, there are few areas that are adequately protected for the purpose of conserving marine biodiversity. Even the National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) at Stellwagen Bank does not have sufficient restrictions on degradative activities. On the Canadian side of the Hague Line, there are as yet no permanent marine sanctuaries of any kind. The risk of significant loss of marine biodiversity is great because most of the Gulf of Maine is exposed to intense commercial uses, including commercial fishing and extraction of other natural resources. By and large, of all commercial and recreational uses, fishing, especially with bottom-tending mobile gears, poses the greatest threat. A description of the major fisheries in the Gulf of Maine is provided below, along with a discussion of the weaknesses of present-day fisheries management in protecting marine biodiversity and ecosystem functions.

Major fisheries in New England

Commercial and recreational fishing occurs throughout the New England continental shelf and slope areas. Scientists have recognized fishing as the most widespread form of human-caused disturbance on the North American continental shelf (Messieh et al. 1991; Auster et al. 1996; Auster and Langton 1999; Friedlander et al. 1999; Watling and Norse 1999; McConnaughey et al. in press). The three major commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Maine are the (1) Northeast Multispecies ("Groundfish") Fishery; (2) Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery; and (3) Atlantic Lobster Fishery. Many of these fisheries are severely depleted and are now slowly recovering. Depletion of traditional groundfish species has forced fishermen into virgin fishing grounds, which exacerbates the ecological impacts of the industry. New fisheries have been created that target former "trash" species, like spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthius) and monkfish (Lophius americanus). Now these fish species are depleted as well and are under rebuilding plans.

Of these fisheries, the groundfish and scallop fisheries affect the greatest spatial area in the Gulf of Maine since bottom-tending mobile gear is used, including bottom trawls and scallop dredges. Approximately 90% of all groundfish landed from the Gulf of Maine is caught by bottom trawls (large nets and associated gear that are dragged along the seafloor to catch fish). Recent analyses to determine the extent of fishing practices in the Gulf of Maine have found that, on average, the entire US Gulf of Maine territory was trawled once annually between 1976 and 1991, while Georges Bank was trawled three to four times annually (Auster et al. 1996).

The scallop fishery extends from New England to the Mid-Atlantic in waters 40 to 100 meters in depth. Over 95% of scallops are landed using large, metal scallop dredges that are 15 feet wide and weigh over two tons. Most scallop fishermen use two 15-foot dredges. High-resolution vessel-monitoring data of fishing effort showed that in 1999 the scallop fishery affected, to varying degrees, over 12,000 square nautical miles -- equivalent to the combined area of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and the state of Massachusetts (Rago and McSherry 2000). At the same time, New England's largest fishery, the Atlantic Lobster fishery, uses fixed gear (lobster pots) rather than bottom-tending mobile gear and affects only an estimated 219 to 657 square kilometers as of 1996 (Auster and Langton 1999).

Overall, commercial fisheries target species throughout their geographic range, and the wide array of harvesting techniques allow fishing to occur over the widest range of habitat types (Auster and Langton 1999).

Environmental effects of New England fisheries

Loss of marine biodiversity

Fishing reduces marine biodiversity in two major ways: (1) directly, by removing target and non-target marine species from the ecosystem; and (2) indirectly, through habitat disruption, homogenization, and reduction of habitat complexity.

Both scallop dredges and bottom trawls are non-selective and collect significant bycatch of other marine life. Discards in the US Gulf of Maine groundfish fisheries were 26 to 44% of total catch (by weight) in 1991 (Murawski 1993). Recent studies in the Northwest Atlantic have found that hundreds of species are caught incidentally in the scallop fishery (Fuller et al. 1998; Magee et al. 1999, 2000) and the groundfish fishery. Bycatch in both fisheries is a significant problem and likely is underestimated due to underreporting of discards at sea. There presently is no rigorous recording of vertebrate and invertebrate bycatch species, nor any attempt to estimate non-target species mortality.

Bycatch of non-target species that are long-lived and exceptionally sensitive to increased levels of mortality, such as barndoor skate (Raja laevis) and deep-water corals (Cnidaria), commonly occurs and could negatively impact their populations (e.g. Breeze et al. 1997; Casey and Myers 1998; Musick 1999). For organisms that easily pass through meshes in fishing gear, or are easily macerated during the process of fishing (such as sponges), analysis of bycatch does not indicate the degree of impact (Freese et al. 1999).

Over the period 1970 to 1993, the frequency of occurrence of 26 finfish species decreased on the Scotian Shelf, including the Bay of Fundy. The steepest declines were observed in smooth skate (Raja senta), thorny skate (Raja radiata), monkfish (Lophius americanus), cusk (Brosme brosme), haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), and wolffish (Anarhichas lupus) (Strong and Hanke 1995). Scientists have identified similar declines in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (Auster in press).

Loss of pristine habitats

The Gulf of Maine contains uncounted numbers of benthic species, many of which are sensitive to bottom-tending mobile gear. Benthic invertebrates are the basis of marine food webs and healthy marine ecosystems. Sedentary structure-forming fauna such as corals, sponges, and tube worms form habitat and shelter for other species, including juvenile commercial fishes and shellfish species, and are particularly vulnerable to the effects of fishing gear. Current fishing practices catch and kill most benthic invertebrates and can lead to severe declines in population sizes and ranges of long-lived invertebrates like corals and sponges.

Fishing activities impact habitat integrity, community composition, and ecosystem processes (Auster and Langton 1999). Bottom-tending mobile gear reduces habitat complexity by (1) removing emergent epifauna; (2) smoothing sedimentary bedforms; and (3) removing taxa that produce structure (Auster et al. 1996). Studies of the effects of bottom-tending mobile gear have found that, in virtually every case, such gear alters the structure of the bottom physically and biologically and reduces species abundance and diversity (for reviews, see Auster and Langton 1999; ICES 2000).

There are over 90 studies documenting the effects of scallop gear, which has a particularly heavy impact. A standard New Bedford scallop dredge can remove and suspend into the water column approximately four to five centimeters of the surface sediment layer. These surface sediments contain more than half of all the benthic invertebrates and most of the easily digestible organic matter that these invertebrates use for food. Scallop dredges capture significant amounts of bycatch and disrupt spawning aggregations of groundfish and other marine life. As the structure of the bottom increases in complexity, especially in muddy sand or gravelly areas, the loss of biomass and species numbers caused by scallop dredging increases dramatically. In most areas where scallop gear is used, the biodiversity of the area is inevitably reduced (Veale et al. 2000).

Scientists have also documented the need for complex habitats to support commercial groundfish populations. Several studies show that juvenile demersal fish die at a higher rate in less complex habtiats (Lindholm et al. 1999). Experimental research has demonstrated that structural shelter that provides refuges for prey is often a limiting factor for growth of the population (Hixon 1991). Lindholm and coworkers (1999) described how predation on juvenile cod was reduced significantly in areas where habitat structure was experimentally enhanced. These observations argue for the importance of protecting complex habitats on the sea floor from destructive fishing practices (see Watling and Norse 1999).

In the past twenty years, technological advances in fishing technology have allowed trawls to access previously inaccessible areas, including waters to depths of 2,000 meters. As gear technology continues to advance, there are few areas that remain inaccessible. By consequence, only areas that legally are closed to destructive fishing practices will experience reduced human impact in the Gulf of Maine and shelf area.

Inadequacies of present-day fisheries management

Lack of adequate habitat protections

Habitat damage due to commercial fishing has been exacerbated by inadequate management for conservation of marine habitat and marine biodiversity. For the past 25 years, fishery managers have virtually ignored the need for habitat protection, in part due to their focus on controlling fishing effort to prevent overfishing. Regulatory tools largely are aimed at the behavior of fishers through management of allowable catch and through effort limitation (Auster and Shackell 2000). The past failure of fishery managers to regulate fishing gear has led to uncontrolled use of technological advances that increase the ability of fishers to access, deeper and more complex habitat types. One example of such a technological advance is the creation of "rockhopper" gear, which are large (12 inches to 48 inches) fixed rubber discs placed in front of a bottom trawl, allowing access to very rough bottoms. These structurally complex sites, now accessible to mobile fishing gear, no longer serve as natural refuges for fish and invertebrates. The "old growth" condition of the sites makes them particularly sensitive to disturbance. Both fishermen and marine scientists have recognized that there are few areas left which cannot be accessed by trawl gear (Fuller and Cameron 1998).

In October 1996, the US Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which amended the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act and required fishery managers to identify and protect "essential fish habitat." Despite estimates of the type, direction, and level of disturbance that fishing activities can have on continental shelf systems, fishery managers in New England and nationwide took few steps to implement habitat conservation measures. The basic rationale for lack of action was that without proof of impacts by particular gears and a greater understanding of the linkages between particular habitats and exploited species, there was not enough information to be precautionary (Auster 2001).

Overall, current habitat management is the antithesis of precautionary management.

Lack of ecosystem-based management

Fishery management presently overlooks ecosystem relationships and the protection of marine foodwebs. It also fails to provide protection to benthic invertebrates. Management instead focuses on maximizing fish extraction from the ecosystem, using a single-species approach. Such an approach ignores trophic interactions and attempts to conserve ecosystems through management of its parts. This approach is further limited to conserving only commercially-important fish species. There are presently no adequate plans to monitor or conserve non-target marine life or the benthic invertebrates commonly caught as bycatch in fisheries.

In 1999, the National Marine Fisheries Service-sponsored Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel recommended an ecosystem-based management approach for fisheries (NMFS 1999) but found that existing Fishery Management Plans are not sufficient to implement such an approach. "No-take" zones and marine protected areas (MPAs) are an important component of an ecosystem-based strategy (Witherell et al. 2000).

The Stellwagen Bank NMS in the Gulf of Maine does little to protect commercial fish stocks or fish habitat from the effects of commercial fishing practices. Presently, the use of all fishing gear, including bottom-tending mobile gear, is allowed in Stellwagen Bank NMS. Recent studies have shown significant changes in marine biodiversity over the past 25 years, mainly due to commercial fishing (Auster in press).

Lack of protection for species at risk

Recently, several species have been identified as being at risk of extinction, mainly due to incidental bycatch in fishing gears (Musick et al. 2000). For example, the barndoor skate has declined 90 to 99% over the last 50 years due to incidental capture in trawls and dredges (Casey and Myers 1998). Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) is eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act and continues to be caught as bycatch. Most of this bycatch is unreported and unassessed. Atlantic halibut commonly are caught before they are able to reproduce, further depleting the population. Overall, fishery management does not have a systematic approach for protecting species that are prone to extinction. Due to discretion, there is no automatic protection for species that might be prone to extinction (Murawski et al. 2000).

Benefits of GOMIOW

A fundamental problem in marine conservation is our lack of knowledge regarding the number and location of important and sensitive areas that require protection. This information is essential for creating a regional system of marine refuges that adequately protects the biodiversity of any region. It is difficult to select habitats for protection and to determine their size given the paucity of knowledge about the relative importance of habitat features found in any region, such as the continental shelf. A precautionary approach is necessary to protect habitats while scientists gather information about fundamental habitat parameters across spatial and temporal scales. Auster and Shackell (2000) have shown that the most effective conservation strategy for protecting biodiversity is to categorize habitats and protect areas within each category. The GOMIOW provides protection to a wide range of habitats based on sediment types, landscape features, and habitats of concern. The GOMIOW is therefore consistent with the precautionary principle.

The need for no-take MPAs is widely recognized because they protect coastal ecosystems and populations of exploited species, improve scientific understanding of marine ecosystems, and provide increased opportunities for other activities (Murray et al. 1999).

Recently, 161 marine scientists prepared a scientific consensus statement on marine reserves (NCEAS 2001). They concluded that marine reserves are a highly effective but under-appreciated and under-utilized tool that can help alleviate many of the problems associated with present fishery management.

No-take MPAs can be designated to protect sponges and corals where a single pass of mobile gear causes high mortality or damage (Freese et al. 1999) and recruitment of these taxa is sporadic or unpredictable. Similarly, no-take MPAs might reduce the risk of endangering species that are not assessed or sampled (Musick et al. 2000) or minimize the risk of depleting populations of non-targeted species (Casey and Myers 1998; Auster 2001). The GOMIOW achieves many of these conservation objectives.

Protection of at-risk species

In 1999, the Marine Conservation Biology Institute hosted a scientific workshop to identify priority areas in the Gulf of Maine in need of increased protection from the effects of commercial activities. While many of the areas identified in coastal areas fell outside the proposed GOMIOW, the majority of offshore sites were clustered within and around the GOMIOW, including areas having populations of species of concern: barndoor skate, Atlantic halibut, and deep-sea corals.

Protection of habitats and marine biodiversity

Fishery managers continue to manage commercial fisheries solely for maximizing economic outputs, not for the protection and maintenance of marine biodiversity. Recent studies show that present-day fisheries affect marine biodiversity in the Gulf of Maine at the local scale (Auster, 2001). By extending the GOMIOW protected area along and across the Hague Line, a representative cross-section of the habitats of the Gulf of Maine would be included, which protects the benthic biodiversity of this biologically diverse region. The GOMIOW would eliminate fishing-gear-induced changes in habitat structure and, over time, allow habitat complexity to increase (Auster et al. 1995) as areas that were chronically fished would be allowed to naturally restore. The GOMIOW also would protect pristine habitats against future impacts.

Willison (2001) has proposed a global network of MPAs, which would include "cornerstone" MPAs on international boundaries. The GOMIOW would be one of these. If cornerstone MPAs were established, each nation could develop compatible, rather than mismatched, national systems. International cornerstones therefore could act as nuclei for a multi-national system of protected areas in North America, regardless of the differing legal systems and political systems on the continent.

Creation of spawning sanctuaries

Research has been conducted on the benefits of a cross-shelf marine wilderness to commercial species. For example, a model created by McGarvey and Willison (1995) indicates that establishing a marine wilderness on Georges Bank would enhance the scallop fishery by allowing scallops to grow larger and thereby increase individual egg and larvae production. The study finds that by protecting 8 to 10% of the productive part of Georges Bank, there would be a substantial effect on scallop recruitment throughout the Bank. These areas would act as spawning sanctuaries. Portions of a cohort of postlarval and juvenile age classes, which settle or migrate to a MPA, would experience enhanced survivorship, potentially increasing recruitment to the fishable stock (Lindholm et al. 1999). Subsequent closures of areas to scallop fishing on Georges Bank have borne out this prediction.

Promote scientific research

There is inadequate information for the management of marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine. By implementing the GOMIOW, precautionary management is promoted by preserving pieces of undisturbed habitats, which also provide sites for a wide range of future scientific research. In order to obtain reliable data and create robust models, experiments with adequate controls are essential. Currently, lack of control areas in New England presents a significant obstacle to research on fish habitat (Dorsey and Pederson 1998).

For marine scientists, the major problem with assessing the impacts of bottom-tending mobile gear is the lack of sites that have gone unfished for long periods of time. Without control sites, scientists cannot determine the effects of fishing gear. In order to understand clearly the effects of fishing on different types of habitat, areas need to be closed so that experiments can determine effort-specific rates of impacts (Auster and Langton 1999). The GOMIOW would close portions of the five major habitat types found in the Gulf of Maine, essentially creating control sites for future habitat research.


The need for ocean wilderness areas in the Gulf of Maine continues. While the Clinton Administration did not designate the GOMIOW as an ocean wilderness, the National Ocean Service recognizes the need for such marine reserves in New England and is presently hosting a set of workshops to identify key areas for protection. American Oceans Campaign continues to promote the GOMIOW and other similar means to designate protected ocean wilderness areas in the Gulf of Maine. The United States and Canada should begin formal discussion on the subject of using the GOMIOW as a tool for integrating marine conservation across the artificial international boundary in the Gulf of Maine.


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Christopher J. Zeman Fisheries Program Counsel and New England Field Representative, American Oceans Campaign;

J.H. Martin Willison School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 3J5;
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Author:Zeman, Christopher J.; Willison, J.H. Martin
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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