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November 9, 2004

Stellwagen Sanctuary Advisory Council Gives Priority to Ecosystem Collaborative Research

A panel charged with making recommendations to the federal government concerning the future management of an 842 square mile area in Massachusetts Bay, known as the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS), gave its highest priority last week to encouraging collaborative research between fishermen and scientists to “understand ecosystem structure and function.” The panel also placed high priority on promoting incentives for fishermen and others to approach, stand by, and disentangle whales. Fishermen heralded the decision to place greater emphasis on a better scientific understanding of the area’s ecosystem so that future regulatory and management decisions will have a sound scientific basis. In this way, marine resources can be effectively protected from a wide array of potential threats ranging from ocean dumping to mining and cable laying to point and non-point pollution.

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) met on Friday, November 5th, in Boston, to finalize and prioritize sub-committee recommendations for the development of a SBNMS 5-year management plan. The Sanctuary Superintendent will now take the recommendations and use them to draft a proposed management plan that will be made available for public review this spring.

The Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership (MFP) maintains that scientific research must precede policy development in order to generate scientifically defensible, equitable and credible Sanctuary policies. In a broader application, the approach given highest priority by the SAC would contribute valuable scientific information to support a shift by other agencies away from single species management to a multi-species management regime for fisheries. “We do not want the Stellwagen Sanctuary to ever manage fisheries,” MFP Executive Director David Bergeron said, “The New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service already do that, but better science would be very useful for these agencies in their decision-making. A better understanding of the Stellwagen ecosystem will furthermore strengthen the Sanctuary’s ability to fulfill its current charge to protect the ecological integrity of the area from a host of threats.”

Fishermen have been wary of some stakeholders who proposed closing areas to fishing in the Sanctuary for research and conservation purposes. At the core of this issue is the promise made to fishermen when the Stellwagen Sanctuary was created in the early 1990s that fishing would never be prohibited within the Sanctuary. To address this matter, the SAC voted to create a special working group that will include fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists to study existing fisheries regulations and closures before any additional proposals might be discussed. Bergeron said that this is acceptable as long as the Sanctuary works with fishermen and scientists to conduct the necessary research prior to making policy decisions. Twenty-two percent of the Sanctuary is already off limits to gillnet and mobile gear fishing and numerous rules and closures are in place to protect marine mammals including whales.

Bergeron views the Stellwagen process with guarded optimism. “We will be able to continue to address all issues in a constructive and methodical manner if we work together. There has been a refreshing level of cooperation among participants on certain important topics to establish an agenda based on cooperation rather than on confrontation. We hope that this continues. The SAC has handed the Sanctuary everything they need to draft a plan that successfully supports their mandated charter to conduct research and undertake public outreach and education.”

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