Fishing gear alters seafloor habitats, but the extent of these alterations, and their effects, have not been quantified extensively in the northwest Atlantic. Understanding the extent of these impacts, and their effects on populations of living marine resources, is needed to properly manage current and future levels of fishing effort and fishing power. For example, the entire U.S. side of the Gulf of Maine was impacted annually by mobile fishing gear between 1984 and 1990, based on calculations of area swept by trawl and dredge gear. Georges Bank was impacted three to nearly four times annually during the same period. Studies at three sites in the Gulf of Maine (off Swans Island, Jeffreys Bank, and Stellwagen Bank) showed that mobile fishing gear altered the physical structure (=complexity) of benthic habitats. Complexity was reduced by direct removal of biogenic (e.g., sponges, hydrozoans, bryozoans, amphipod tubes, holothurians, shell aggregates) and sedimentary (e.g., sand waves, depressions) structures. Also, removal of organisms that create structures (e.g., crabs, scallops) indirectly reduced complexity. Reductions in habitat complexity may lead to increased predation on juveniles of harvested species and ultimately recruitment to the harvestable stock. Because of a lack of reference sites, where use of mobile fishing is prohibited, no empirical studies have yet been conducted on a scale that could demonstrate population level effects of habitat-management options. If marine fisheries management is to evolve toward an ecosystem or habitat management approach, experiments are required on the effects of habitat change, both anthropogenic and natural.
Additional publication details
The impacts of mobile fishing gear on seafloor habitats in the gulf of maine (Northwest Atlantic): Implications for conservation of fish populations