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Saving Stellwagen

Les Kaufman lauds “landmark” plan


Les Kaufman, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology and a longtime advocate for rebooting the way the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is managed. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Who says Uncle Sam never admits mistakes? The long-awaited management plan for the vital Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, released just after Independence Day, plainly admits that when it comes to protecting the precious sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine, about 25 miles east of Boston, the government goofed.

Although flawed, the new plan is an indisputable improvement, says Les Kaufman, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology and a longtime advocate for rebooting the way the sanctuary is managed.

Kaufman was one of many who helped devise the new plan, which aims to protect an underwater plateau of more than 840 square miles inhabited by 22 mammal types, notably endangered varieties of whale, and almost 600 species of other creatures. He also helped develop a computer tool that simultaneously forecasts the effects of a regulation on the ecosystem, the various industries working the sanctuary, and food production. Stellwagen’s problem, he says, is that its ecological value is crowded by its economic value: commercial fishers and whale-watching companies make $40 million and up a year from its waters, and their activities deplete fish stocks and sometimes result in collisions with whales. Historic shipwrecks slumber below, and fishing gear has tangled and damaged them as well as whales.

Kaufman says that other than suggesting consideration of a ban on fishing of one species that’s currently not fished, the sand lance, the planners bowed to the fishing industry in avoiding tougher curbs. “Even though the plan may seem lacking to radical conservationists, by political standards, I do think this is a significant step,” says Kaufman, who advocates holistic area management instead of absolute, species-by-species limits on what fishermen may haul from the waters. While he’s candid about his disagreements with the fishing industry, the marine biologist lays more responsibility for Stellwagen’s plight on conflicting regulations.

BU Today talked with Kaufman about the new plan and Stellwagen’s future.

BU Today: Give the plan a grade.
Kaufman: I would give it a B-plus. I think it’s a really good plan. It doesn’t go as far as I’d like it to go. On the other hand, if you take political realities into account, I’d probably give it an A. If the plan were more assertive, there would probably be lawsuits.

From whom?
The fishing industry.

Who will be most unhappy with the plan?
I actually think it strikes an Arthurian balance. Everyone will be pissed off, which is probably a good sign. The real positive is that the sanctuary bent over backwards to make it participatory, to include all the users. The downside is that the fishing lobby effectively castrated some of the most important provisions. The main one was to establish some part of the sanctuary that would actually be protected—one area where you couldn’t take anything out.

The provision would have eliminated all fishing?
All fishing or anything that would have disturbed the bottom. We didn’t get that, so we don’t have any reference area for what we’d get if we did back off entirely. I work with the fishermen. A lot of them are my friends. I just don’t agree with them. I was on an advisory committee that was called the zoning working group. This is all part of the management plan process. We operated by consensus, and this committee could not agree, because some people on the committee were opposed to rezoning.

The fishermen?
As it happens.

What positive, concrete steps does the plan call for?
Most important of all, it acknowledges that the existing management structure isn’t working, the sanctuary’s health isn’t what it should be, and that’s the goal, to restore its health. Those are landmark statements, as obvious as it sounds, because one of the options was to do nothing.

Does the plan embrace area management?
Absolutely. And it solves a lot of earlier problems. For example, the plan alludes to recent research that shows local management efforts do make a difference, even though they’re somewhat diluted. I think the most concrete step is to collect data that indicate what needs to be done, including areas where there are strong conflicts between user groups. As for the actual mandate to stop harmful activities, I feel the plan doesn’t go far enough. However, we are proposing steps that could help, like changing fishing practices—animals are allowed to get older and bigger—enforcing the whale-watching regulations more stringently, and the sanctuary devoting more effort to protecting the shipwrecks. They’re going to run after people who fish too close to them.

What will the sanctuary’s health be 15 years from now?
That depends in large part on the media and educators. The bulk of the public comments demanded greater protection. Extractive fisheries had a stronger voice—not that anyone was proposing there never be any fishing. Public pressure could reinstitute that provision. There is an existing area of the sanctuary, 22 percent, in which no trawling is allowed. What we were proposing was to redistribute that area and exclude all fishing, not just trawling.

Will regulators now use tools like your computer program?
Yes. BU is collaborating with the sanctuary to develop and apply such a tool to state waters under the Massachusetts Oceans Act, and we have been given support to include the role of Stellwagen in serving the state economy as part of the model.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


One Comment on Saving Stellwagen

  • Isabelle on 07.16.2010 at 8:26 am

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