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Gulf of Maine preserve could be partially reopened

After a dozen years of prohibiting access, the New England Fishery Management Council is considering reopening portions of a preserve 80 miles off the coast of Gloucester —one of the region’s most distinct marine habitats —to trawlers.

Even if the most sensitive areas remain protected, the prospect has infuriated environmental advocates, who worry about harming the ledge’s unique biodiversity and further damaging already dramatically reduced cod populations.

“If they open up what is basically a museum of life in the Gulf of Maine, it would be like taking a snowplow through the natural history,”Jon Witman, a marine ecologist and professor of biology at Brown University who has been studying the area for years, told the Boston Globe. “To not protect these areas is unconscionable. This is a sanctuary.”

But fishermen argue that the closure is no longer necessary because a quota system now caps the amount of each species that fishermen can catch each year.

They also say the closure causes more damage to the environment than allowing fishing in Cashes Ledge because fishermen spend more time raking the seabed with their dredges and nets in areas where it’s harder to find fish. If they were allowed into waters where there are ample amounts of cod and pollock, they could speed up their catch, burn less fuel and earn more money, they say.

“This is a no-brainer; this is where the fish live,”said Terry Alexander, a member of the council and a fisherman who has worked the area around Cashes Ledge since 1976. “We need to put fish aboard those nets quickly and get home.”

The council, consisting of scientists, government officials and fishermen, is holding public hearings throughout the region this summer in advance of a vote on lifting the closure this fall. Its members will be considering four options, ranging from one that would permit fishing throughout the entire 550 square miles to one that would maintain the status quo.

Creation of the preserve around Cashes Ledge came later than environmental advocates would have liked, and they worry that it could take decades or longer for the area to recover from years of fishing.

Brian Skerry, a renowned underwater photographer for National Geographic who has chronicled seascapes from New Zealand to the Arctic, has been diving in the Gulf of Maine for more than 35 years. Large schools of fish he used to find by just wading off the coast are no longer easy to spot.

After a recent dive over Cashes Ledge, he found fewer fish than he expected, but he said the area remains a “jewel”that looks like an “undersea garden.”

He urged the council to keep the entire area off-limits to commercial fishing and said it could take years before fish spawning in the preserve help replenish the region’s waters.

“Imagine how our waters looked 200 years ago,’’he said. “Cashes is like a holdout from the past, a ghost of what once existed. It’s fading quickly, though, so protection must happen now if there is any hope of holding on to what remains.”

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