After more than 10 years of on-again, off-again deliberations, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) is preparing to take final action on the comprehensive Omnibus Habitat Amendment. “Omnibus” refers to the amendment’s application across all fishery management plans (FMPs) within the New England region. The six-volume document addresses several aspects of spatial management: essential fish habitat, permanent and seasonal closed areas, and a detailed analysis of the ecological, social, and economic impacts of the alternatives under consideration.
Essential Fish Habitat (EFH)
The amendment updates EFH designation for all species under NEFMC management. These designations have little impact on fishing activity. Rather, they guide NOAA’ s consultation process when other agencies are reviewing non-fishing activities, such as dredging, coastal development, or beach restoration. The amendment also updates Habitat Areas of Particular Concern, essentially a subset of EFH. Any non-fishing activity proposed within an EFH may be subject to limitations, such as dredging only during certain months.
The most significant part of the amendment deals with proposed changes to the network of year-round and seasonal closed areas in New England waters. Federal regulators have closed areas to fishing activity for varying reasons over the past 20 years. The amendment reconsiders those closures in light of new analysis based on seabed impacts of fishing activity, location of high densities of juvenile groundfish in surveys, and a greater understanding of the spawning behavior of species such as cod. Given the new output-based management approach for groundfish, regulators are also considering changes to closed areas that were designed primarily to limit fishing effort.
The impact analysis portions of the amendment anticipate the potential gains or losses to the fishing industry of opening or closing areas. That analysis is then compared to the ecological gains or losses of those actions. In addition, the amendment document considers the cumulative impact of making changes collectively. This section contains in-depth analysis of those impacts across fisheries and communities.
Where the Process Stands
Council staff plan to have the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) ready for public hearings in late October. They will schedule a series of public hearings and will be accepting written comments for 90 days following publication of the DEIS in October. The Council may take final action in January 2015, but it is also likely that they will not be able to take up the amendment until spring 2015.