Comments of the Groundfish Forum Regarding NMFS’s Essential Fish Habitat Framework

Summary of Recommendations

  1. Healthy Systems:  Modify the framework to reduce redundancy and allow for greater flexibility where systems are already managed sustainably and stocks are healthy.
  2. Purpose of Framework:  Modify the objectives, remove all language referring to “maximizing societal benefit”, and recognize that the relationship between habitat and production is presently poorly understood and scarcely quantifiable.
  3. Ambiguity of Framework:  Resolve vague language, and then re-open the comment period on the Essential Fish Habitat framework.  Presently, the obscure language in the framework makes it difficult to adequately comment on the proposal.
  4. Fishing Gears:  Modify references to fishing gears such that all gears are included.  Additionally, specifically reference the Congressional definition of “maximum extent practicable.”
  5. Level of Evidence:  Rely on in site observations of habitat damage, rather than evidence brought to the surface.

Recommendations Specific to the North Pacific

  1. State Waters:  Insist that states agree to formulate parallel programs prior to implementing Federal Essential Fish Habitat guidelines.  If this is not done, the framework may omit large portions of critical habitat.
  2. Catalogue Habitat:  The process of cataloging habitat is a useful exercise for current purposes.  Additionally, it creates a record enabling future studies to measure changes in habitat quality and quantity.  However, 15,000 square nautical miles of the Eastern Bering Sea (25% of fishable shelf area) are currently closed to trawling in order to protect red king crabs.  This is just one type of area closure/restriction instituted in the North Pacific (see attachment).  The framework should, at least, explicitly note these species protection areas for the North Pacific.

The North Pacific is a Healthy System

From all legitimate sources, North Pacific fisheries are managed sustainably, ensuring healthy and stable stocks.  The North Pacific Management Council employs a variety of conservation oriented measures that meet or exceed the standards outlined in the proposed framework.  For example, the NPFMC has had in place a habitat policy since 1988.

It seems redundant and wasteful to encumber an effective management system with vaguely outlined responsibilities on top of their already burdensome workload. Therefore, it would seem more efficacious for the framework to make allowances for healthy systems.

In this process of identifying and describing Essential Fish Habitat, will areas presently closed be reevaluated to determine if they are indeed “essential?”

Purpose of Framework

Problem

Uncertainty and lack of data make objectives of the proposed framework largely unattainable.

Recommendation

Modify the objectives into something attainable.

The objective of the EFH process is, as stated in public hearings, to make sure that the amount of habitat necessary to keep fish populations at high levels is available.  This objective may be inherently unachievable.  It assumes that we understand the relationship between habitat and fish populations.  Nevertheless, this is the “level four” understanding that the proposed framework admits is probably not presently attainable.

Also, the tenor of this framework leads one to ask if defining EFH for a single species, as the framework sets out to do, is wise.  This may take away from the current drive towards multi-species fisheries management.  For example, this single species focus is found in the numerous, but vague, references to predator/prey relationships.  These interactions are indeed vitally important, but this takes a narrow view, one that fails to encompass the broader needs of the entire suite of species (including man) that inhabit and depend on the oceans.

Ambiguity of Framework

Problem

Ambiguity in terms; e.g., societal benefit, necessary, maximum extent practicable, historic areas, sufficient quantity of suitable habitat.

Recommendation

Define terms before asking for comments. Without clear definitions, it is impossible to comment substantively on the framework.

Case A

Councils are tasked with eliminating or reducing the effects of fishing gear to the maximum extent practicable. This term, maximum extent practicable, is not defined in the framework. However, the concept was defined during Congressional debate of the Magnuson-Stevens Act as: “Councils should make reasonable efforts in their management plans to prevent bycatch and minimize its mortality. However, it is not the intent of the Congress that the councils ban a type of fishing gear or a type of fishing in order to comply with this standard.” (Congressional Record 9/27/96, p. H11437) Is this the definition that NMFS intends to use?

Case B

The Council is asked to consider physical and chemical oceanographic features in the process of identifying EFH (e.g., turbidity zones, thermoclines, or fronts). While it may be possible to define these characteristics spatially, it is well nigh impossible to define them temporally, either in the short or long term. Science is just beginning to understand the inter-annual variation of the oceans. Moreover, scientists are far from comprehending long-term oceanic regime shifts. Therefore, it may be unwise to restrict certain activities based on EFH linked to dynamic environmental parameters. Is the framework married to the notion that the productivity of living marine resources is bound solely to habitat?

Case C

The concepts of “target production levels” and “maximum societal benefits” are in themselves difficult to define. When combined, as on page 5 of the framework (“…the amount of habitat that is necessary to maintain a managed species at a target production level that supports the maximum societal benefits of the species…”) their meaning and intended purpose are far from clear.

Fishing Gears

Problem

Specific language in sections regarding fishing gears and the Councils’ actions to restrict gears. The language in these sections should specify that the impacts of all gear types will be considered.

Recommendation

Substitute “all gears” at every point of reference in this section.

Our concern here is that ambiguous language could incite a non-productive disagreement between gear groups if it is not explicitly stated that all gear is subject to scrutiny. This battle would detract from the true purpose of identifying and describing Essential Fish Habitat.

Evidence of Impacts on Habitat

Problem

Because different fishing gears produce dissimilar levels of evidence of habitat impacts, Councils may focus restrictions on specific gears when, in fact, this may not be the most effective or equitable outcome of this process.

Recommendation

Impacts of fishing gears on habitat should be based solely on observations of the habitat itself.

Our concern here is that perceptions about the impacts of fishing gears on habitat may result from the disparate levels of observer coverage between gear types and vessel size classes in North Pacific fisheries, and the fact that different fishing methods often produce different levels of evidence of impacts. For example, trawl gear may bring evidence to the surface, whereas, longline and pot gears may produce unseen impacts.

Essential Habitat in State Waters

Problem

The proposed framework has no jurisdiction over Essential Fish Habitat in state waters.

Recommendation

The guidelines should demand that states agree to establish a parallel process before the Federal exercise of identifying and describing Essential Fish Habitat proceeds. Further, Federal agencies should have oversight authority over state processes.

Our concern here is that to be effective, Essential Fish Habitat must not be limited to areas outside of state jurisdiction. Our Living Oceans (1995) reports that “habitat loss and degradation affect mostly inshore and estuarine ecosystems.” Therefore, a substantial amount of habitat of essential value resides in state waters and is not covered by the proposed framework.