Runaway MPAs?

Posted on May 13, 2014 by Bill Bird, Chairman, CCA National Government Relations Committee

The biggest avalanches can start with just a few pebbles tumbling downhill. All it takes is the lightest nudge in the wrong place to set off a reaction all out of proportion to the initial event. And the results can be devastating.

In the South Atlantic, a few pebbles are starting to roll and they could turn into a veritable avalanche of marine protected areas to address depleted populations of speckled hind and warsaw grouper, two deep-dwelling fish that like to hang out on the same hard bottom anglers like to target for a variety of other species.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are management tools that limit or eliminate fishing from a particular area. On paper, they are portrayed as sanctuaries that protect critical habitats from degradation, or fish from harvest, and allow populations to recover and move out into unprotected areas where they may be harvested. On the water, the science on how effective MPAs are is incomplete, at best, and MPAs are such a drastic measure that they should be regarded as the tool of last resort for fishery managers.

Anglers in the southeast states may well remember early efforts to recover speckled hind and warsaw grouper, which included a stunning bottom closure of everything deeper than 240 feet for the entire South Atlantic. For a brief time, before cooler heads prevailed and the blanket closure was rescinded, no bottom fishing was allowed for those 2 species, plus 6 other species that commonly occur with them  - snowy grouper, blueline tilefish, yellowedge grouper, misty grouper, queen snapper, and silk snapper, in a monstrously huge swath of the ocean. The closure was rolled back when new information indicated that the same protections could be afforded the targeted species by closing only certain areas to bottom fishing.

As a result, there are currently eight MPAs in the South Atlantic, ranging in size from about 8 square nautical miles to 150 square nautical miles. They are all Type II MPAs, which essentially means that bottom fishing is not allowed, but fishermen may troll over the sites.  Unfortunately, there has been very little monitoring or research done at the current MPA sites to show how effective they may or may not have been, and yet the Natural Resources Defense Council has now filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service contending the 240-foot closure is necessary to end overfishing. The suit is ongoing and is driving a renewed debate over MPAs.

In the meantime, the South Atlantic Council has convened an MPA Expert Working Group to evaluate the situation.  In its initial discussions, the Council stated its intention to primarily consider re-orientating some of the existing deepwater MPAs. However, rather than simply reorienting the existing MPAs, the Working Group developed many additional areas where the two species are caught, or that are known spawning sites, for possible closure.  The Council currently has Regulatory Amendment 17 in the works as the vehicle to put into place new MPAs, and approved a motion at its December 2012 meeting to consider other areas for closure.  

The problem for many anglers is that the proposed new areas for closure are favored fishing spots, and there has been very little monitoring or research done at the current MPA sites.  There is a troubling lack of documentation to support the idea that new sites will provide the necessary protections for speckled hind and warsaw grouper. There is not even information on the effectiveness of the ones currently in place, as required under federal law. In fact, the following comes directly from the Regulatory Amendment 17 Scoping Document: 


Current Stock Status Conclusions from the April 2012 SSC Report: “It is possible that SH (speckled hind) and WG (warsaw grouper) are not undergoing overfishing, given all the regulations for associated species and the current analysis from the Regional Office; however, there is not sufficient  evidence to indicate overfishing has ended. Additional closed areas could further decrease bycatch mortality beyond current levels.

Based on the current info, the SSC cannot determine what benefits an additional closure will provide to the stocks of SH and WG, what amount of area closure is necessary to reduce bycatch mortality, or if additional closed areas are even necessary. Additional monitoring and data needs to be collected in order to be able to conduct an assessment of these species.”


This is not how the process is supposed to work.

During the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the overarching law that governs our nation’s fisheries, CCA and other angling groups worked to have Freedom to Fish language inserted into the law that would govern the consideration and implementation of MPAs. That language states that any closure of an area under this Act that prohibits fishing, must:

  • Be  based on the best scientific information available;
  • Include criteria to assess the conservation benefit of the closed area;
  • Establish a timetable for review of the closed area’s performance that is consistent with the purposes of the closed area; and
  • Be based on an assessment of the benefits and impacts of the closure, including its size, in relation to other management measures (either alone or in combination with such measures), including the benefits and impacts of limiting access to: users of the area, overall fishing activity, fishery science, and fishery and marine conservation.

Given those requirements, it is difficult to comprehend how the South Atlantic Council could be considering additional MPAs at this time. Amendment 17 is currently in the pre-scoping phase, which means it is literally just starting, but this Amendment has the potential to develop into an avalanche of closed areas if anglers do not pay attention and insist that the South Atlantic Council adhere to federal law governing the use of MPAs.

Amendment 17 is scheduled to go to public scoping in August 2014, and CCA is asking members to be on the lookout for more information on these proposals and opportunities for public comment. We will get back to you as Amendment 17 proceeds, or hopefully, recedes.