John on Press Herald Post


Have you ever attended a planning board meeting?

There has been considerable discussion of “urban sprawl” in southern Maine. Town planning departments and planning boards are where citizens confront these questions of sprawl and manage the effects of development.

But imagine, for a moment, a planning board where all the members happened to be builders and real estate developers. Imagine a housing development up for review by this body – what sort of standards would they apply.

Sidewalks? – Too expensive. No one walks any more. Waiver granted.
Extend a water main? – Home owners can drill wells. Waiver granted.
Wetlands? – Breed mosquitoes. Drain them – waiver granted.

You get the idea. Fortunately we don’t do municipal planning this way (though some would like to). Land use is strongly tied to community values and the people who make those decisions have to represent the whole community.

“Marine habitat destruction” is the ocean equivalent of “urban sprawl”.

A few summers ago I attended a two-day workshop at the UME Darling Marine Center campus in Walpole. Meeting there were US and Canadian planners and scientists looking at human-caused stressors to marine habitats in the Gulf of Maine. They determined that, in every kind of marine habitat, from open-ocean to estuary, the greatest impacts by far come from commercial fishing.

Then they asked the question, “If fishing is altering marine ecology, who manages the impacts of fishing?”

Answer: in US waters the responsibility falls to the New England Fishery Management Council. Hmmm – not what people expected.

Therefore, today I am attending the New England Fishery Management Council’s Habitat Committee meeting. It’s not an easy assignment to sit through. The day’s discussion is focused on a federal proposal – guidelines for protecting corals from damage by fishing operations. The chairman, an intelligent, well meaning man, is running the meeting – he is a charter boat captain. The vice-chairman owns a groundfish trawler. Three members are employees of marine resource agencies in NH, RI and CT.

The final member is an industry trade representative with a large trawler background – he has been speaking at length against the federal proposal – specifically, recommendations to close areas where corals are found to many forms of commercial fishing. Listening to him you would understand that bottom trawlers, clearly, are no threat to coral and should not be included on a list of destructive gear-types. “Really. Trawler captains avoid coral areas. They don’t want to get into the stuff. Damage to coral comes from lobster traps and gillnets, not trawlers. No need to close them out of these areas.”

fish Okay. Yup. We know how he’s going to vote.

Few people realize that there are beds of hard coral in areas of the Gulf of Maine. Cold-water corals that grow in deep basins and canyons along the continental shelf edge. Species which live for 500 years. One pass of a trawl-door or a carelessly retrieved net can wipe out a long biological history in an instant. Scientists estimate that 80% of coral biomass in New England has been lost to interaction with commercial fishing over two centuries, in little bits and pieces over time.

So how long shall we leave a piece of sea-bed undisturbed in order to regenerate coral communities? No one in the fishing industry is going to ask that question. Instead, the debate may be whether to protect some of what is left. And coral is just one of many issues of this sort.

Comprehensive planning for marine environmental quality? No one has invented that yet.