In their official nomination, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and their Coney Island Aquarium staff outlined their specific reasons for nominating the offshore Hudson Canyon as a National Marine Sanctuary.
“Many people, whether they are ocean enthusiasts or have never set foot in salt water, will never make it out to the Hudson Canyon itself because of its distance offshore and accessibility being restricted to a half-day boat trip,” the letter says, adding “WCS has the unique opportunity to bring the wonder of the deep sea directly to millions of visitors each year through interactive exhibits within our parks.”
For thousands of coastal fishermen who don’t mind the “half-day boat trip” to the Hudson to tangle with mahi, tuna and billfish, there was good news on April 12 when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) voted 15-4 in opposition to the WCS pitch to designate the Hudson Canyon as a restricted area of the ocean.
While claiming to have “community-based support for the nomination expressed by a broad range of interests,” the WCS marine sanctuary plan had actual fishermen and fishing industry leaders incensed.
In a letter of opposition on behalf of coastal fishermen, Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) executive director Jim Donofrio noted that regardless of the WCS’s intention, recreational fishermen would not have any legal protection under the federal sanctuary law.
“Considering that the National Marine Sanctuaries Act does not contain any language that sanctuaries must use science-based management, recreational fishermen would face the constant threat they will be excluded from areas for arbitrary, agenda driven reasons which is currently happening in Stellwagen and USS Monitor sanctuaries,” Donofrio noted, explaining how sanctuary designation would actually allow the federal sanctuary law to supersede any existing regulations deliberated and approved by regional fishery management councils.
Donofrio said his organization has been fighting these types of sanctuary proposals since the angler advocacy and lobbying group was first established in 1996, and said he sees the attempt by WCS as little more than a reallocation of federal fisheries funds. “There is no need for additional bureaucracy, this is simply meant to be a cash cow for groups like WCS to get more funding to promote the canyon areas through their custom-printed brochures and in-house children’s programs,” Donofrio said explaining how petitions like the one made by WCS rely on electronic signatures and open calls for support generally resulting in tens of thousands of signatures from non-stakeholders and elementary school children.
“The aquarium folks made a lot of promises and guarantees to fishermen that fishing would not be prohibited under their proposal, but the federal law that manages these sanctuary areas says differently, and these folks know that,” he added.
Regrettably, there were four appointed Council members who voted in favor of the WCS marine sanctuary plan – New York’s John McMurray, Maryland’s Ward Slacum, Pennsylvania’s Andrew Shiels and Virginia’s Peter deFur.
Donofrio pointed out that the sanctuary proposal for the Hudson Canyon isn’t necessarily defeated since it has to go through the federal government for final approval; however he said the 15-4 decision by Council on April 12 presented a critical message that recognizes any regional fishery management council’s responsibility to manage fishing activity.
A perfect example was in 2015 when the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved a comprehensive deep sea coral protection in the submarine canyons along the Continental Shelf which included the Hudson Canyon. As of 2016, the so-called Frank R. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area now boasts many of the fishing gear restrictions that environmental groups like WCS have asked for in the past.
“It’s very helpful that the Council was against it,” Donofrio noted, explaining the majority vote by Council was recognition that their individual duties handled much of the same activity that a bureaucratic oversight panel for sanctuary designation would ultimately manage.
While the 15-4 vote creates a major hurdle for WCS, their proposal to turn the Hudson Canyon into an official national marine sanctuary is not dead; more like in remission. Because the nomination was accepted by NOAA Fisheries and officially added to the NOAA Marine Sanctuary inventory prior to the confirmation of new a Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, the designation process is still active.
RFA pledged to stay active in opposition, and hopes that Secretary Ross could ultimately purge the Hudson Canyon nomination from the federal inventory of possible locations.