Benthic Habitats and the Effects of Fishing

The Effects of Area Closures on Georges Bank

Jason Link, Frank Almeida, Page Valentine, Peter Auster, Robert Reid, and Joseph Vitaliano

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781888569605.ch63

Abstract. In late 1994, substantial portions of Georges Bank were closed to commercial fishing to assist with stock rebuilding. These areas were Closed Area I (CAI), located on the western portion of the bank, and Closed Area II (CAII), on the eastern portion. After about 5 years of closure, the southern portion of CAII and the central portion of CAI, having exhibited substantial increases in biomass and density of sea scallops Placopecten magellanicus, were reopened to scallop fishing. Before the industry was allowed entry, we conducted surveys to monitor the recovery of benthic habitat and fauna inside both areas. Sampling sites were selected in a paired station design for an inside–outside comparison representative of major habitat types in each closed area; other stations were chosen to survey the remainder of the closed areas. At each station, we examined a suite of biotic and abiotic variables ranging from substrate type to benthos to nekton. Our results suggest few differences between the inside–outside paired stations in both closed areas for nekton and benthic species composition and species richness. Fish abundance and biomass were similar inside and outside the closed areas. However, individuals of species such as skates (Raja spp.), haddock Melanogrammus aeglefinus, and flounders (Pleuronectiformes) were generally larger inside than outside the closed areas. Additionally, habitat type was important in determining the distribution, abundance, biomass, size, and feeding ecology for some of the more benthic-oriented species studied. In CAI, the differences we observed in the suite of biotic metrics are likely a result of the high diversity of habitat types, with many of the habitat types composed of higher-relief material (e.g., cobble, gravel, etc.) in the region. The seabed in the southern portion of CAII is a relatively high-energy sand habitat of low to moderate complexity and has a relatively low vulnerability to trawling and dredging, which may explain why there were less pronounced differences in abundance or biomass across habitat types in that closed area as compared to CAI. Other parts of closed areas on the northeastern shelf may exhibit more obvious changes in the same biological metrics due to the presence of more complex habitats and increased vulnerability to bottom tending fishing gear. Those differences we observed for CAI and CAII may have implications for the population dynamics of commercially valuable benthic species, yet that question remains a major challenge.