By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown
By the early 1990’s, decades of heavy fishing had depleted several of New England’s important fish species, including cod, haddock, pollock and flounders (collectively referred to as ‘groundfish’). Fishermen had been catching fish faster than they could reproduce and had degraded fish habitats by dragging nets. To help rebuild New England’s fish populations, managers established several areas where fishing with any gears capable of catching groundfish species were prohibited. These areas were designed to protect both young, immature fish and large breeding adults. Later, in the early 2000’s, several areas both within and outside these closed fishing areas were designated as habitat closures, designed specifically to protect vulnerable habitats from all destructive bottom fishing gears.
Over the last 10-20 years, these protected areas have provided important safe havens for many species and have allowed previously degraded ocean habitats to recover. These protected areas have complex bottom structures and living communities that include kelp, mussel beds, sponges, and more. These areas often contain larger and older fish compared to fished areas. Since larger fish produce many times more eggs than small fish, these large fish are critical to helping populations rebuild1. Protected areas also help create a build-up of fish, which can swim into outside areas, and actually improve fishing there2.
These protected areas have provided many benefits to New England’s groundfish species, including Georges Bank haddock, Acadian redfish, pollock, and white hake–which have all recovered from previously depleted states. They have also benefited other species, like scallops–whose populations are thriving– and many marine mammals.