An Island-based group that includes fishermen, a documentary filmmaker and a world-renowned oceanographer are leading an unprecedented effort to create three marine protected areas in waters south of the Vineyard.
A special designation under federal law, marine protected areas are in place all over the country in both fresh water and ocean areas.
The Vineyard project has been spearheaded by Dr. Sylvia Earle and her nonprofit Mission Blue, which aims to establish marine protected areas around the globe called Hope Spots. Ms. Earle is a widely respected oceanographer and National Geographic explorer in residence. She was recently honored on the Vineyard for her work in studying and protecting marine ecosystems worldwide.
The Vineyard-based plan calls for halting all commercial fishing in three areas south of the Island. The areas under consideration include the Nantucket Lightship site, a vast ocean area 100 miles east of Menemsha, an area known as banana shoals south of the Vineyard, and a third area southeast of Squibnocket Point. All three areas are historically rich fishing and spawning grounds for flounder, cod, tautog, yellowtail, fluke and mackerel.
“It’s best to start in your backyard,” Ms. Earle said in a telephone interview Thursday. “For America, it makes a lot of sense to look at a place that has a very long tradition of being close to the sea with a whole era of whaling and fishing and communities and livelihoods, people who really understand more than most why the ocean matters.”
The idea of designating three areas off the Vineyard has been under quiet discussion for three years and is expected to take another three years to complete. But a decision by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in June that allows community groups to nominate areas of concern in their region brings the possibility much closer to reality, organizers say.
Islanders involved in the effort include Bob Nixon, a documentary filmmaker and Menemsha businessman, and Buddy Vanderhoop, a charter fisherman. Three years ago over Labor Day weekend a group met with Ms. Earle at the Home Port restaurant, which Mr. Nixon owns with his wife Sarah Nixon. A spokesman for NOAA also attended.
Mr. Nixon recalled the conversation that led to the meeting.
“The fishermen, Buddy, all of these guys see what’s going on and Buddy in particular said, you have to do something with all these trawlers, they’re just hammering everything,” he said. “I said, I’d love to have Sylvia come talk to us,” he recalled. Ms. Earle had previously served on the board of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and had done many dives in Island waters.
The group of fishermen and scientists became acquainted and quickly found common ground, Mr. Nixon said. Soon they were rolling out maps and discussing the idea of a marine protected area near the Vineyard.
He said the three areas targeted for designation have been dubbed the blue necklace.
Over the next year, Ms. Earle and a group of Mission Blue scientists will survey the three areas to assess the potential Hope Spots. The surveys will be a part of the nomination application to NOAA. The last time an underwater survey of the area was completed was in 1993 by NOAA. Ms. Earle was the lead scientist.
“We thought it would be incredible to dive on some of these areas because no one has ever dived on them,” Mr. Nixon said. “Previous studies did catch data and bottom analysis, but that’s it.”
The team of divers from Ms. Earle’s team, the Vineyard and elsewhere, will make about 20 dives over the course of the next year, taking still photographs, filming and getting a close look at the quality of the habitat. A test dive was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
To be considered, the area under nomination must either contribute to the ecological and biological productivity of the area, support economic uses, have public use or be a submerged maritime heritage resource site. The application must also include management practices with an emphasis on the community support for the initiative. NOAA reviews each application on a case-by-case basis.
Ms. Earle lauded the decision by NOAA to open up nominations to communities where people are closely acquainted with the habitat, such as fishermen. Mission Blue is hoping to connect other organizations and community groups to spearhead similar nominations elsewhere.
She said concern over loss of local fisheries has grown dramatically in recent years, largely provoked by what she called “the industrial extraction of ocean wildlife” by commercial vessels in nearby waters.
“They are taking too much and destroying habitats in the process,” she said. “It’s just common sense when you pull back and look at it, which is what we’re helping to make happen. Here’s the evidence, here are the facts, here are the trends . . . and look to the future if we continue at the level we are at. It’s time to rethink the policies that were set in motion when we thought the ocean was too big to fail, that our job was to take as much as we could as fast as we could.”
Mr. Nixon is a film director and conservationist whose latest film, Mission Blue, is based on Ms. Earle’s life work. A free screening of the film was held in Menemsha last week; it will be released as a Netflix documentary on Friday this week.
Among other things, Mr. Nixon said he hopes to enlist underwater cameramen he has worked with on previous projects to join the exploration.
He also said he fully expects backlash, including possibly from sea scallopers and large trawlers.
“It’s very much a David and Goliath situation with our shore-based fishermen,” Mr. Nixon said. “It’s the industrial fleet going out there and hammering these fish.”
Buddy Vanderhoop, a well-known commercial fisherman from Aquinnah who works out of Menemsha, said the prospect of creating marine protected areas around the Vineyard represents renewed hope for saving the fishery.
“People have been taking, taking, taking and people fishing in places where they spawn,” he said, speaking from the docks at Menemsha on Thursday. “You just can’t keep taking and have no place for the fish to spawn and reproduce. You’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
He noted that there are no protected areas around the Vineyard.
“It’s pretty vital to have protected areas for fish to spawn so you don’t run out of fish,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “We can’t keep taking and taking. You have to give fish a safe haven so they can propagate.
“We have to give them a fighting chance so our kids can have fish as well. It’s not all about greed.”
An earlier version of this story reported that Scott McDowell and Jennifer Clarke, among others, were involved with this project. The Gazette has since learned that they are not involved and the story has been corrected.