Coastal Blue Mussels are in Decline, and the Solution May Lie a Hundred Miles Offshore

If you’ve ever gone tide-pooling in New England, or just strolled the shoreline, chances are you’ve seen blue mussels. Sometimes it may just be an empty shell lying on the sand, the animal itself already preyed upon by a bird, or some may still be holding on strong to the rocky substrate.

Blue mussels play an important role in our region’s ocean ecosystem, not only as a food source for seabirds, sea stars, and whelks, but also for filtering the water and cycling toxins. They also serve as an important economic resource for fishermen harvesting from the wild, and entrepreneurs exploring aquaculture production. The AP reports that the dockside value of wild blue mussels peaked in 2013 at $13 million nationally.

Unfortunately, blue mussel populations – a species that once covered two-thirds of the Gulf of Maine’s intertidal zone – have dramatically declined. A new marine ecology study from the University of California at Irvine, highlighted by numerous news sources, found that Gulf of Maine coastal populations of blue mussels have declined more than 60 percent in the last four decades.

The researchers said that the decline is the result of multiple factors: warming ocean temperatures, increased human harvesting, and invasive species. This decline is yet another example of the vulnerability of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, which is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Mussels are a sturdy marine animal; they are designed to thrive in harsh intertidal areas where they are regularly exposed to crashing waves, hot sun, and the coming and going of tides.

Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, told the AP that this study shows the clear need for more research on the effects of warming waters and commercial harvesting on mussel abundance. It’s also evidence for the need to protect and strengthen the resiliency of our marine environment.

The Gulf of Maine Needs a Fully Protected Marine Area

At Cashes Ledge, located at the heart of the Gulf of Maine, healthy and thriving mussel beds blanket the sea floor. The mussels are accompanied by abundant Atlantic cod and pollock populations, North Atlantic right whales, and more. One reason why this area thrives is because of the restrictions on harmful commercial fishing practices. The animals and plant life at Cashes Ledge have been able to find refuge in this habitat, where they can breed, feed, and grow. This is an area that deserves to be protected now and forever.

Protecting Cashes Ledge, an area 100 miles of the coast, may not directly benefit our coastal mussel populations, but it will create a long-lasting healthy ecosystem that has a better chance of fighting the impacts of climate change. Additionally, scientists could use this area as an underwater research laboratory where they could study the impacts of warming waters and apply their findings to other areas of the Gulf of Maine, including coastal areas.

The Gulf of Maine is a highly dynamic ecosystem that is interconnected, from the species that live on the seafloor to the species that dive in from above. Humans also have a place in that ecosystem, but our actions have all too often been influenced by industry interests and resource extraction. There isn’t one area in the Gulf of Maine that is fully protected from commercial extractive activities. It is time to change that – it is time to permanently protect Cashes Ledge.

From the Ledge: Leg 2 Recap

Photo: A panoramic view of Nitrox scuba dive operations at the Ammen Rock dive site on Cashes Ledge, taken from the bridge of the RV Connecticut on June 3, 2016. Divers Brian Skerry and Steve De Neef are returning to the zodiac dive tender after photographing in the remarkable kelp forest. Orange buoys mark the dive sites. Liz Kintzing is on deck to dive next (left foreground) while Dive Safety Officer Jeff Godfrey oversees the dive operations. The swell in background is due to ship movement while the photo was taken.

Underwater photographers Brian Skerry, Steve De Neef and Luis Lamar, scientists Jon Witman and Fiona Beltram and Dive Safety Officers Elizabeth Kintzing and Jeff Godfrey returned late Sunday night, June 5, 2016, from the second expedition to Cashes Ledge, this time aboard the RV Connecticut.

The team photographed the luxuriant kelp forest on Ammen Rock, along with the abundant fish – cod, pollock and cunner – and myriad invertebrates living on the surface of the mountain peak and within the forest.

Jon and Liz repeated their surveys of kelp and fish populations, finding dense Saccharina kelp (see image below) growing more than 5 meters in height, reaching astounding standing stock biomasses up to 7.0 kg per square meter at 15 meters depth.

The window of good weather enabled the team to dive consecutively for 2.5 days – the longest stretch of diveable days at Cashes Ledge in recent years!

Photos:

Fiona Beltram of the Witman Lab holds up a long strand of Saccharina kelp from Cashes Ledge. Photo by Allison Lorenc, taken May 27, 2016.
Fiona Beltram of the Witman Lab gets help measuring a long strand of Saccharina kelp from Cashes Ledge. Photo by Allison Lorenc, taken May 27, 2016.
Divers Jon Witman and Liz Kintzing stepping off the stern of the RV CT to dive at Ammen Rock on June 4, 2016. Orange buoy in background is their target to swim to as it marks the dive site. Lu Lamar (at right) prepares a Remotely Operated Vehicle to dive.
Divers Jon Witman and Liz Kintzing step off the stern of the RV CT to dive at Ammen Rock on June 4, 2016. The orange buoy in background is their target to swim to, as it marks the dive site. Lu Lamar (right) prepares a Remotely Operated Vehicle to dive.

 

 

From the Ledge: Leg 1 Complete

This is the third in my series of reports from this year’s expedition to Cashes Ledge with Brian Skerry and Brown University biologist Jon Witman. Follow the expedition on Twitter for regular updates!

If you were following along with us on Twitter this weekend, you may have seen that we had to cut short our weekend expedition to Cashes Ledge. After a brilliant, sunny day on Saturday, we woke up to stormy seas and high winds Sunday morning. Due to the unexpected turn in weather, the captain of the ship quickly made the decision to pull anchor and head back to Boston in the early morning.

We slowly made our way out of the storm and the seas began to calm, and we arrived in Boston around 6:30pm. Time certainly seemed to move more slowly when the team wasn’t in and out of the water all day, but the travel day on the boat gave the team the opportunity to review its work from the previous diving days.

The photography team – Brian Skerry and Steve DeNeef – looked through their many pictures and video of the breathtaking and diverse wildlife at Cashes Ledge, and Dr. Jon Witman and his assistant Fiona began to analyze data. I also had the opportunity to interview Brian, Jon, and Steve on video about the trip and why Cashes Ledge deserves to be permanently protected as a marine national monument.

Even though we had to end the trip early, we’re excited that this was only Leg 1 of the expedition. The team hopes to head back out to Cashes Ledge via the R/V Connecticut very soon. It looks like poor weather may delay their departure this week, and although I won’t be on board this time, we will continue to keep you updated on the their status and progress.

We’re looking forward to what else the team will be able to capture during Leg 2!

 

From the Ledge: Saturday, May 28

This is the second in my series of reports from this year’s expedition to Cashes Ledge with Brian Skerry and Brown University biologist Jon Witman. Follow the expedition on Twitter for regular updates!

What a special place to be. The fog cleared yesterday, and after our own dinner, as the sun set behind the clouds, we sat on the bow watching whales lunge feed on schools of herring. When the herring balls, moving as one unit, came close enough to the ship, you could see each individual fish swimming just below the surface. At night, the sky was filled with stars, as you would expect I guess being 100 miles from land.

Strong winds and larger waves had been predicted for today, but we’ve been lucky to have calm seas and a bright, warm sun.

The team reported that the visibility was better than yesterday, giving a milky blue look underwater. One diver said the absence of current made it feel like “hydrotherapy” – even though the water was still only 49°F.

On the first dive of the day, Dr. Jon Witman placed two GoPro cameras on Ammen Rock, one on top of a knoll and the other in a gulley, to take video of the fish swimming by. He collected the cameras on the second dive and will bring them back to his lab for analysis.

Brian Skerry described to us the scenery that he tried to capture with his photographs: gold kelp with a soft amber-colored algae bottom, a wolfish slithering into the kelp just near the bottom of the anchor line, and a photo-shy red cod.

Just before lunch, Dr. Witman gave the group a science lesson about the internal waves found at Cashes Ledge, which are what make the ecosystem so productive. The waves, which give the surface water a slick appearance, create what he calls a “food elevator,” delivering layers of concentrated phytoplankton to the deeper waters multiple times a day. Seabirds feed and minke whales dive into the layers.

The most exciting part of the day was when two minke whales swam through the dive site just as the team was surfacing! They then stayed in the area to feed on the plentiful plankton at Ammen Rock.

It’s late in the afternoon, but the camera team is about to head out for their third dive. Dr. Witman has collected his data for this site and will dive again tomorrow.

Dive 1: 50 minutes, average depth 32 feet, max depth 43 feet
Dive 2: 48 minutes, average depth 38 feet, max depth 51 feet
Water temperature: 49°F

From the Ledge: Friday, May 27

This is the first report from this year’s expedition to Cashes Ledge with Brian Skerry and Brown University biologist Jon Witman. I’m accompanying the team and reporting from Cashes. Follow the expedition on Twitter for regular updates!

After departing Boston, MA, around 2pm yesterday, our research vessel slowly made its way to Cashes Ledge, arriving in the early dawn.

Let me just say, you don’t have to go below the waves to know that Cashes Ledge is full of life. We spent the morning watching humpback whales feed on schools of fish, while seabirds circled and dived from above. All day the whales continued to surface, so close to the ship that we could hear their spout from on deck.

The waters were fairly calm today and the team was able to complete two dives, the first around 10am and the second around 2pm. The fog rolled in just as the second dive began and has stayed with us. The visibility underwater was low, but the team saw plenty of fish – mainly cod, pollock, and cunner. After the first dive, Brian Skerry reported that the kelp is healthy, thick, and lush, and Dr. Jon Witman described it as “very luxurious.”

Fiona-Kelp-CashesExpedition2016While the team was underwater, I assisted Dr. Witman’s undergraduate assistant Fiona Beltram as she measured the kelp samples collected by the scientists from Ammen Rock. Among the kelp, we found beautiful sea stars, baby brittle stars, horse mussels, and encrusting bryozoans. Don’t worry, all the samples are being returned to the sea.

As Jon and Fiona finish measuring their kelp samples, the rest of the team is relaxing (some napping) after a busy first day.

Dive 1: 48 minutes, average depth 34 feet, max depth 46 feet
Dive 2: 44 minutes, average depth 40 feet, max depth 46 feet
Water temperature: 49°F

 

 

Dive in on Cashes Ledge 3.0!

We are excited to announce that we have embarked upon a dive expedition this week, exploring the crown jewel of New England’s ocean – Cashes Ledge! We can’t wait to report to you from one of our most treasured special places, accompanied by our friend and partner, Brian Skerry, and Cashes Ledge expert scientist Dr. Jon Witman.

Unlike in years past, our research vessel, provided and operated by the Waitt Foundation, will take the 100-mile trip out to Cashes Ledge from Portsmouth, NH, and will remain at sea through May 30. During this time period, our talented team of scientists, photojournalists, and cinematographers will take full advantage of every opportunity to explore and document this place. Additionally, I will be highlighting the expedition live from the boat via social media! Be sure to follow Conservation Law Foundation and New England Ocean Odyssey on Facebook and Twitter to receive live updates.

On previous expeditions, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has captured breathtaking images of the kelp forest and marine wildlife at Cashes Ledge, and we are on the edge of our seats to see what critters he will come in contact with this time.

We are even more excited to share the expedition with Conservation Law Foundation and New England Ocean Odyssey followers, so that you can dive in with us to see the beauty of Cashes Ledge as well!

About Cashes Ledge

Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range in the heart of the Gulf of Maine. Its tallest peak, Ammen Rock, rises to within 40 feet of the surface. The strong currents and internal waves along the ledge mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water producing a biodiversity hotspot right in New England’s backyard. Atop the ledge you’ll find the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. The unique ecological conditions found at Cashes Ledge draw in a rich diversity of marine species ranging from bottom-dwelling sea stars, sea anemones, and purple sponges to fish like cod, wolfish, and bluefin tuna to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Campaign to Protect New England’s Ocean Treasures

Cashes Ledge is a truly unique area in New England’s ocean. It’s a refuge habitat for some of our most valuable and iconic species; it’s an underwater laboratory that scientists can use to better understand the effects of climate change; and it’s greatly vulnerable to human and ecological threats. For these reasons, Cashes Ledge deserves to be permanently protected as a Marine National Monument. In addition to following our dive expedition, be sure to follow our campaign to Protect New England’s Ocean Treasures.

Note: As always, trips to Cashes Ledge are weather dependent. We’ll be updating frequently, so be sure to check back in often!

#SaveOceanTreasures: The Bamboo Coral

About 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are home to a plethora of deep-sea coral varieties; after all, we don’t call them the coral canyons and seamounts for nothing!

Corals and other sessile marine organisms can grab hold of the hard substratum found in the area, creating the foundation for highly productive colonies and deep-sea ocean ecosystems. Vibrant colonies of deep-sea corals pop out against the black backdrop of the ocean thousands of meters below the surface. Among these corals is one my favorites – bamboo coral.

Nygren Bamboo
The marvelous giant bamboo fan, Jasonisis, from Nygren Canyon. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition.

Bamboo corals comprise the family of octocorals, formally known as Isididae. All octocorals have polyps with eight tentacles and an internal skeleton that alternates between short nodes and longer nodes, making it look like bamboo!

The dark black or brown short nodes are made of a protein, while the white longer nodes are made of calcium carbonate. This characteristic skeleton makes bamboo corals easier to identify, even in the dark depths of the deep-sea.

During the Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition 2013, ROV Deep Discoverer investigated Mytilus Seamount. Corals were diverse on Mytilus Seamount, but the composition and abundance of corals differed between the north and south side of the seamount. We observed this colony of Jasonisis, a bamboo coral, with numerous crinoid associates.

Mytilus Bamboo Coral
During the Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition 2013, ROV Deep Discoverer investigated Mytilus Seamount. Corals were diverse on Mytilus Seamount, but the composition and abundance of corals differed between the north and south side of the seamount. We observed this colony of Jasonisis, a bamboo coral, with numerous crinoid associates. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

Bamboo corals are a fairly common variety of deep-sea coral, found in all oceans at depths between 200m and 4,000m; however, scientists actually know very little about them. NOAA Okeanos Explorer researchers reported at least seven different bamboo coral species at the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, all belonging to the subfamily Keratoisidinae. The exact species and the abundance of each are still unknown.

NOAA researchers also observed a wide range of deep sea invertebrates from sea stars to barnacles feeding on the bamboo corals or utilizing this undersea oasis as an essential habitat.

As Dr. Scott C. France says in his blog, “Clearly bamboo corals play a major role in the deep-sea communities of these canyons and seamounts,” and clearly we must preserve the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

Learn more about our efforts to preserve species like this and protect them from human threats with #SaveOceanTreasures.

Dive in on Cashes Ledge 2.0

Our dive team is back! Over the next two weeks the team will return to the Gulf of Maine and Cashes Ledge to explore more of New England’s beautiful ocean and marine life!

This year from June 1 to June 14, onboard the R/V Tioga, the team will travel the 100 miles off the coast to Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range in the center of the Gulf of Maine that rises to within 40 feet of the surface. The steep slopes and ridges of Cashes Ledge create internal waves that mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water. This mixing supports incredible productivity and biodiversity like no other place in the Gulf of Maine and gives rise to the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. The unique ecological conditions draw in a rich diversity of marine species ranging from bottom-dwelling sea stars, sea anemones, and purple sponges to fish like cod, wolfish, and bluefin tuna to endangered North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales.

Our dive last year captured breathtaking photographs and video of Cashes Ledge, the Isles of Shoals, and the inshore Gulf of Maine. This year, we will be able to go deeper than before – too far for the team to go themselves. Using an ROV, the team will explore down the flanks of the ledge all the way to the muddy basin below. Weather depending, we will also try to ascend the peak of Fippennies Ledge, just west of Cashes. Cashes Ledge harbors an assemblage of marine habitats and we want to see them all!

In addition to capturing stunning video and photo images of Cashes Ledge and other areas in the Gulf of Maine, including habitat and wildlife, the dive will serve to advance Dr. Jon Witman’s research on kelp, cod, and Cashes Ledge. Dr. Jon Witman is a marine ecologist who led the first ecological study of overfishing in the Gulf of Maine and has spent decades studying invertebrate and fish communities on Cashes Ledge and other marine habitats in the region.

Much like last year, this year’s exact dive locations will depend on a lot factors like weather and visibility. We are off to a rainy start, but those clouds should clear soon, and we hope to head out on the water. Stay tuned over the next two weeks for more updates, and be sure to follow New England Ocean Odyssey and Conservation Law Foundation on Facebook and Twitter so you can explore with us and help build awareness and support for New England’s ocean. We look forward to revealing more of the amazing wonders beneath New England’s waves!