- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Federal regulators are deciding the scope of a management plan for thousands of square miles of fishing grounds off New England that has deeply divided fishermen and conservationists.

The New England Fishery Management Council is working on the long-awaited plan for federal waters from Maine to Rhode Island. It includes a host of options including opening areas closed to fishing and adding new restrictions to open areas.

Some of the options would change - and, in some cases, decrease - protections to habitats such as Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain and offshore ecosystem mostly closed off to fishing that conservationists want to preserve. Regulators have held a series of public hearings about the proposed changes, with conservationists pushing for preserved or increased protections. Fishermen have cited the need to access fishing areas in a time when critical species such as cod are heavily restricted and low in number.

The council held the last of the hearings on Wednesday in Portland. Some of the options could have “tremendous economic impact” on fisheries, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Unnecessary closures “could jeopardize the livelihood of many of those who rely on accessing those areas to make a living,” she said.

Conversely, conservationists such as Sean Mahoney, the executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the imperiled nature of some species is exactly why closed areas need to remain off limits.

“We just think it’s completely counterintuitive when we’ve got record lows in stocks like cod,” Mahoney said.

Council members will spend the next few months digesting the information from the public hearings and debating the plan’s options. The written public comment period about the management plan is set to end on Thursday. Members said they might vote on the plan by April.

“It’s ended up being fairly polarized at this stage,” Michelle Bachman, a council fishery analyst, said about public comments on the plan.

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