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Protecting Offshore Fish and Fish Habitat in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean

A Special Publication of the American Littoral Society

Summary

Humans rely on the ocean.

The ocean covers almost three quarters of planet Earth. It is full of amazing wildlife and incredible underwater ecosystems. The ocean drives our global climate, produces the oxygen we depend upon, and stores carbon and excess heat driven by greenhouse gas emissions. The ocean is imperative to our very survival. The ocean provides millions with food security, jobs and is a source of clean energy. We recreate at the ocean, we go fishing on the ocean, we bring our families to the ocean to make memories that can be passed down to younger generations. We are connected to the ocean.

“The Mid-Atlantic region has a deep cultural and economic connection to the ocean and in particular to commercial and recreational fishing. These values – and the jobs and food security they represent – depend on a healthy, productive ocean.”

From “Protecting Offshore Fish and Fish Habitat in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean”
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The ocean is under stress, worsened by climate change.

Every single day humans make demands on the ocean. Some demands have led to overfishing, nutrient pollution, ecosystem degradation, and plastic pollution. As populations increase, so do our demands, and at a time when we are seeing our ocean waters warm, acidify, lose oxygen, and rise. Storms come earlier, flooding is more frequent, fish are moving north. As uses like offshore shipping, ocean mining, and fishing increase, and plans for large offshore wind energy projects become reality, there will be ripple effects to the long-term health of our ocean and coasts for decades to come.

The Mid-Atlantic ocean is changing, which impacts recreational fish and fish habitat areas.

Climate change is already impacting the Mid-Atlantic Bight and the larger Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem, placing crucial benefits and services like recreation, fishing, and coastal community safety, to name a few, on the line. Anglers and coastal managers see in real time fish shifting northward as ocean waters warm and acidify and conflicting uses mar or destroy important fish habitat.

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Mid-Atlantic decision-makers are looking to the ocean for solutions, which may also impact fish and fish habitat areas.

With even greater ecosystem and climate impacts on the horizon, Mid-Atlantic states and federal agencies are looking to the ocean and coasts for solutions. The demand for sand along Mid-Atlantic coastlines in the wake of disappearing beaches from intense storms and sea level rise has led to a hunt for offshore sand resources along the eastern seaboard. New Jersey anglers and the Littoral Society have long been concerned with the real identified impacts to offshore fish habitat from sand mining.

In addition, the development of offshore wind in the Mid-Atlantic Bight will be necessary to ensure the U.S. transitions to fully renewable energy from dirty fossil fueled energy sources to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. Offshore wind must be developed and sited responsibly, because even with its climate mitigation benefits, it can have impacts to the offshore environment.

“As uses like sand mining increase and plans for offshore wind become reality, there will be ripple effects to the health of our ocean.”
From “Protecting Offshore Fish and Fish Habitat in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean”
number 5

Mid-Atlantic states protect fish and fish habitat in many ways, with strongest regulatory protections found through state Coastal Policies identified in federally approved Coastal Management Plans.

States protect fish and fish habitat in a variety of ways, but one of the strongest tools a state has to protect them during the development and permitting of activities like offshore sand mining or wind development is through a federally approved Coastal Management Plan under the authority granted to states in the Coastal Zone Management Act.

Mid-Atlantic states use a variety of enforceable policies in their Coastal Zone Management Act approved programs to protect fish and fish habitat. Some focus on types of ecosystems, some on coastal uses, and some on both. What each has in common is the purpose of serving in the interest of protecting important state coastal resources. One rule, the New Jersey Prime Fishing Areas Rule, stands out.

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One important coastal policy is New Jersey’s Prime Fishing Areas Rule.

New Jersey’s coastal policies identify a set of special areas, which are so naturally valuable, important for human use, hazardous, sensitive to impact, or particular in their planning requirements that they require individualized, focused attention and special management rules. Prime Fishing Areas (PFAs) are a part of New Jersey’s special areas. PFAs include tidal water areas and water’s edge areas which have a demonstrable history of supporting a significant local intensity of recreational or commercial fishing activity.

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Prime Fishing Areas are important to New Jersey’s recreational fishing community.

Anglers consistently fish in and around New Jersey’s PFAs and have a wealth of information regarding the status, species, and use of these areas but have not always been prioritized in outreach around issues of sand mining and offshore wind.

Angler Insight

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The Society has identified a set of 10 recommendations to assist decision-makers in closing knowledge and process gaps around state protections like Prime Fishing Areas that can lead to better understanding and protection of fish and fish habitat.