“Ocean Planning” Offers Anglers An Opportunity We Should Take

by Capt. John McMurray, Owner/Operator of One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, New York
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If you’ve spent any real time offshore, you know that some spots are more “fishy” than others. To any fishermen worth his/her salt, that’s just a given.

Often, a spot’s productivity is due to hard-bottom, structure or rapid depth changes. But other times, for no particular reason we are aware of, some areas seem to hold “life” more consistently than others. By life I mean anything and everything: turtles, whales, dolphin, sandeels, squids, etc… All the stuff we look for when trying to determine whether or not tuna, mahi, billfish, stripers, bluefish or any other fish that we might want to target could be around.

Those particular “go-to” areas are simply more important. As anglers we know that, perhaps more than anybody. So why am I waxing about something you guys already know? Well, it’s because we’re facing a new age as fishermen. The ocean is no longer “ours.”

As the coastal population continues to boom, and the ever-increasing demand for energy continues, we’ll likely see, within our lifetimes, ocean development at a scale that’s almost hard to imagine.

Yes, we can all just be anti-development/anti-everything as some fishermen and some ENGOs certainly seem to be. But to think such development isn’t gonna happen just because they are opposed is incredibly naïve, and, well, stupid.

British wind farm

A wind farm off UK shores

While it certainly hasn’t been broadcast widely, large swaths of ocean bottom off the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts have already been carved out for potential wind energy development. If you’ve ever been to the UK and looked out onto the English Channel, you get a good idea of scale. And let me tell you, these things can cover A LOT of ground.

Let me be clear that I am not under any circumstances bashing offshore wind-power. I think we need to move forward with sustainable wind energy. In fact, in my view, particularly where I am (the NY Bight), this could be quite beneficial for the angling community. Yes there will absolutely be some disruption during the construction cycle, but can you imagine the offshore structure? I mean holy (expletive)… The tog, black sea bass, the mahi, the tuna that come in there to chase bait!!! It could be epic! Assuming we’d have access of course. Thus far I’ve heard nothing to make me believe me that we won’t. And believe me I’ve asked about this at every junction.

But where they put these things is pretty damn important. We certainly don’t want them on hard bottom, or just those “fishy” areas that always seem to produce. On that note, we sure as hell don’t want a natural gas terminal at Ambrose or on Cholera Bank right? And oil development? Man, I don’t want to get into that here.

The overarching point though is that ocean use is rapidly increasing, and it needs to be addressed on a high level, first of all to minimize the ocean use conflicts that will inevitably arise, but perhaps more importantly, to avoid adverse ecosystem impacts (read: “effects to our fish-catching opportunities”).

Another shot of a British offshore wind farm

Another shot of a British offshore wind farm

To address all this, there has been what I consider to be a relatively new “ocean planning” movement. Yes, the states have been engaged for an awful long time, but the feds just institutionalized an ocean planning initiative in 2010 with a National Ocean Policy Executive Order, which calls for the creation of Regional Planning Bodies (RPBs) to coordinate and implement regional ocean planning with state, Federal, tribal, and Fishery Management Council representatives.

Now, the usual “they’re-out-to-get-us” crowd would have you believe that all this ocean planning stuff is a back-door way to close down large swaths of ocean to fishing, but that just isn’t true. Charlie Witek already covered this pretty well in a recent blog, so I’m not gonna get into the conspiracy theory thing. The brass tacks here is that a big part of what ocean planning seeks to do is ensure that industry (wind, gas, oil, commercial fishing, etc.) doesn’t screw up marine habitat, or shut us out of historically productive fishing grounds.

So a major focus of ocean planning right now is the development of a stronger base of information to make well-informed decisions on what’s appropriate where.

With that said, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) hired Duke University’s Dr. Pat Halpin – one of the world’s foremost scientists in the field of marine geospatial ecology – to work with leading ocean researchers to identify the Mid-Atlantic’s most important “ecological” areas. Last week, Halpin’s team released an initial set of Mid-Atlantic places that are unique because of their massive amounts of marine life. He has developed a first map of “abundance core areas” – places where more than 50 percent of the region’s fish, birds, corals, and marine mammals can be found over the course of the year. These places make up part of what the Regional Planning Body is calling “ecologically rich areas” (ERAs).

What we’re talking about here are places of high productivity; areas that are probably critical to the ocean’s functioning and resiliency; places where spawning, breeding, feeding and migration happen. The places we tend to find fish!

Let me be very clear again. Identifying an area as an ERA doesn’t mean such an area would be a marine reserve or that fishing activities can’t occur there. It just means we need to be careful about what we allow. Like, well, we don’t want to put a wind farm on top of a coral community. Yes, the science on these things is probably not perfect – and, in fact, more data on fisheries will be needed as we continue to improve our maps into the future – but this is a huge first step, and we need to take advantage of this opportunity. Ocean use is increasing, and decisions are made every day about where and how to develop. We certainly can’t wait and let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We need to act on what we have and know now to make sure some of these places continue to exist.

The Regional Fishery Management Council system is, of course, limited in its ability to address threats to ocean habitat, other than those caused by fishing. Yet, the Fishery Management Councils can indeed help protect these and future ERAs by using existing processes to examine what impacts things like bottom trawling may have on ERAs, and to take steps as needed to address existing or potential problems. The Councils should continue to identify essential fish habitat (EFH), create habitat areas of particular concern, and urge federal agencies to do their part to protect these and other types of sensitive habitat. The ERAs and their component map layers will be valuable new resources to help inform such efforts.

Perhaps more importantly, as offshore fishermen, we need to make it very clear to the Regional Planning Bodies (RPBs) that we want the participating federal and state agencies to act within their existing authorities to protect ERAs. This is pretty darn important if we want those go-to spots to continue to produce.

You can do so by joining me in signing onto a letter.

Wild Oceans is actively engaged in the development of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Action Plan, which is on schedule for completion in 2016.  Realizing the need for the recreational community to get involved, Wild Oceans helped draft the sign-on letter and  obtained permission from Capt. McMurray to re-post his blog, which was originally published on February 9, 2016 at ConserveFish.org.

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