World Wildlife Day: Lowest North Atlantic right whale calving season in 15 years intensifies need for solutions

North Atlantic right whales have made headlines lately, and not just because they’re spending time off the coast of Cape Cod. Sadly, reports about the endangered whales have focused on the news that birth rates are now below the mortality rate – indicating population decline. Just three calves were born this winter, the lowest rate in at least 15 years.

A birth rate lower than the mortality rate means that not enough calves are being born to replace the ones that are dying. A likely factor in the decrease of births is the whales’ difficulty in finding reliable food sources. Without adequate fat storage, female right whales are giving birth every seven or so years instead of the normal rate of every three years.

This is troubling for any wildlife species, but especially so for the North Atlantic right whale, of which scientists say just 524 or so remain. (100 are breeding females.)

The recent designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – the first of its kind along the Atlantic seaboard – may help provide these whales with more reliable food sources. Science shows the monument area to be rich with marine wildlife, and with the 4,913 square miles protected from most industrial activity, undisturbed populations of plankton and copepods could help these whales in the long run.

Restoring food sources, though, is a long game, that faces a tougher trajectory as the ocean is becoming more and more crowded and temperatures are rising. With right whales moving around more often in search of food, they are at increased risk of facing their two largest (human-caused) threats: becoming entangled in fishing gear and being hit by a ship.

Ship strikes

Right whales tend to swim close to the surface, making them potential targets for ships that are moving quickly and/or don’t see the whales. The good news is that mortality rates from ship strikes are no longer increasing (even as ship traffic increases) after regulations were put into place requiring ships to decrease their speed in certain areas frequented by right whales during certain times of year. The bad news is that ship strikes are still a leading cause of death for right whales – averaging about one per year.

Fishing gear entanglements

Approximately four to five right whales die each year due to fishing gear entanglements, making it the leading cause of death for the species. In September 2016, Whale 3694 died of “chronic entanglement.” This death was even more heartbreaking than usual since she was of breeding age. It remains unclear whose fishing gear – or even which type of fishery – was responsible for the whale’s death.

Thankfully, there are groups working to understand which types of gear are most responsible for the deaths, and how changes in material and/or flexibility could help pose less of a risk for right whales. The Marine Mammal Commission is focusing its 2017 annual meeting on right whales; New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life has a research program aimed at finding solutions; other groups like the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and the Center for Coastal Studies – among many others – are working together to get right whales back on track toward population growth.

It’s worth noting that scientists are also working to identify other factors that could be at play to explain this year’s dramatically low number of calves, such as population-wide illness, pollution issues, or a genetic dysfunction. Calving season typically goes through the end of this month, so it’s possible we may still see another calf born before the winter is over.

The recent news is disappointing, and with attacks on the Endangered Species Act potentially brewing in congress, it’s critical that this work continues.

Read more about the North Atlantic right whale in our species profile, and share this post on Twitter with the #WorldWildlifeDay hashtag to help us raise awareness. 

Third Ocean Frontiers Film Highlights Ocean Management and the ‘Blue Economy’

The crew that brought us Ocean Frontiers: The Dawn of a New Era in Ocean Stewardship and Ocean Frontiers II: A New England Story for Sustaining the Sea is back with a third installment. This newest documentary showcases the progress of ocean management in the context of what it means to be responsible stewards of ocean resources as the ‘blue economy’ grows.

This spring, a number of venues will host screenings of Ocean Frontiers III: Leaders in Ocean Stewardship & the New Blue Economy to allow New Englanders to learn more about the recently approved Northeast Ocean Plan (and its Mid-Atlantic counterpart).

The film rides the waves of the plans’ final approval by the National Ocean Council late last year. It’s a powerful recap of the years-long effort to plan for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

According to Green Fire Productions, which produced the film, it “explores the intersection of national security, maritime commerce, fishing, and recreation, plus expanding industries such as offshore wind energy and aquaculture, coupled with scientific discovery. The film tells the story of how ocean planning helps us manage and balance all the uses of our ocean to keep it thriving for generations to come.”

While the first two installments focused largely on the concept of ocean management and how it applies in New England, the third film explores the effects of larger vessels and heavier maritime traffic coming through our port cities at a time when climate change is impacting the ocean’s ecosystems (and science is rushing to keep up). All of this, paired with new forays into offshore wind, aquaculture, and other emerging industries – and the activities of the armed forces charged with keeping our coasts safe – makes for an increasingly busy ocean.

In this context, coordinated ocean planning couldn’t have come at a better time. From Maine to Connecticut (and down to Virginia), an unprecedented collaboration of state and federal agencies and Native American tribes are working with new, publicly accessible ocean data and listening to the voices of local individuals and groups to keep national security strong, the economy growing, and to protect important ocean habitat.

The accessibility of the best available science and data is crucial, because it means that anyone can explore the intersection of various ocean uses and activities. (See for yourself at northeastoceandata.org how fishing, energy, recreational data and more can be layered to provide a basis for decision making.) This also means that local stakeholder voices play an important role in making sure the ocean plans are implemented in a way that honors our region’s storied and important ocean resources.

Screenings of the new film will take place throughout New England this spring. A March 9 screening is already sold out, so reserve your spot for another upcoming screening today: in Groton, Conn. (3/17 and 4/25), Belfast, Maine (3/21), Salem, Mass. (4/11), Chilmark, Mass. (4/20), Rockland, Maine (5/4), or Portland, Maine (5/18).

Ocean Frontiers celebrates the implementation of the Northeast Ocean Plan, and we encourage all New Englanders to attend a screening and to learn more about our region’s national leadership in smart ocean management.

Learn more about Conservation Law Foundation’s work in pioneering ocean planning here.

Check out the trailer here:

Op-ed: Preserve Cashes Ledge and save fish

This post is from an op-ed that was featured in the Climate Change Column of the Ipswich Chronicle. The author is Charlotte Kahn, an Ipswich resident and retired researcher/writer. Kahn attended a presentation last week featuring CLF’s senior counsel Peter Shelley, and felt compelled to share the message with her community.

The “extreme” drought ended with 5.5 inches of rain in January, for which we thank the rain gods. But it’s sobering to recall that 14 inches of rain broke all records in the Mother’s Day Flood of 2006. And according to town historian Gordon Harris, “The five highest floods ever recorded on the Ipswich have occurred since April 1987.”

It doesn’t take a climate scientist to tell us that whiplashing weather patterns are breaking records with unnerving regularity – from historic drought to epic flood, Arctic blast to intolerable heat wave. Fossil-fuel emissions are rising into the atmosphere at rates higher than in millions of years, blanketing and warming the Earth. The Northeast is changing. The waters of the Gulf of Maine – Cape Cod to Nova Scotia – are now heating faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Precipitation in the region is projected to increase by 70 percent – interspersed with longer droughts – this century.

In the face of accelerating change, we need to learn how handle extremes. Our wells and reservoirs almost ran dry during the drought. Yet during storms, rain rushes off the land into storm drains where it mixes with chemical pollutants and dog feces from roads and parking lots and excess nutrients and pesticides from lawns and gardens, flowing into rivers and marshes and washing over the coastal eelgrass that nurtures and protects young fish and shellfish, the “seed corn” of New England’s seafood industry.

Coastal pollution – along with rising temperatures, gas and oil drilling, mineral mining, ocean acidification and industrial fishing methods – is putting extreme pressure on New England’s fish and shellfish stocks. I learned that last week at the North Shore Technology Council’s Sustainability Forum at the Cummings Center in Beverly, where Conservation Law Foundation marine expert Peter Shelley said the demand for fish and shellfish is growing even as fossil fuels are heating the atmosphere and warming the oceans, sending some species to their doom. If we want marine fish to thrive, they need healthy environments in which to grow…

Read the full op-ed here.

National Geographic: Brian Skerry Takes First Underwater Photo of a U.S. President

Our partner for the ocean, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, took the first photograph of a U.S. president underwater when President Obama visited Midway Atoll last summer after announcing the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Weeks later, the president announced the first marine monument in the Atlantic and cemented his legacy as the “ocean president.”

In an interview with National Geographic, here’s what Brian has to say about the increased attention now being paid to ocean conservation:

“In my own career there’s been this evolution. I began just wanting to make beautiful pictures of things that interested me. Animals I thought were cool, places I was interested in traveling to. But over time, I’ve seen this steady degradation occurring in our oceans, things that aren’t evident to most people. As a journalist I have a sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to tell those stories . . . It’s very satisfying for me, having spent most of my life out there in the ocean, finally seeing these issues resonating at the highest levels among people who can really do something about it and make a difference. I just hope it’s not a one-off. I hope we continue.” Read the full interview here.

To hear more from Brian, mark your calendars for the premiere of Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures – featuring Cashes Ledge – airing Sunday, January 15 at 7 p.m. EST on National Geographic Channel.

The Future of Offshore Wind in New England is Bright

On a beautiful, brisk, and windy fall day last week, director of ocean conservation Dr. Priscilla Brooks embarked upon a cruise out to the Block Island wind farm for a close-up view of our nation’s first offshore wind farm.

The 13-mile ride was bumpy, but well worth it, Brooks said. Standing some 560 feet high, with a 490-foot wingspan (that’s more than twice the size of a Boeing 747’s wingspan), each GE Haliade turbine is massive in size and symbolism, signifying a turning point toward New England’s renewable energy future.

The turbines are expected to be turned on next month and will produce electricity to power 17,000 homes. Built by developer Deepwater Wind, the Block Island wind farm is monumental as the first-ever offshore wind farm in the United States. And it definitely won’t be the last: Deepwater Wind has additional plans for a larger farm within the same leasing area, called Deepwater One, which will be built in phases and could eventually generate enough power to serve New England and Long Island.

Priscilla Brooks
Vice president and director of ocean conservation Dr. Priscilla Brooks toured the Block Island wind farm last week ahead of next month’s “flipping of the switch” of the five-turbine wind farm.

New York Community Trust, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the John Merck Fund, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, and Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas hosted last week’s boat tour. Representatives from Deepwater Wind and GE Renewable Energy also attended the tour, describing the construction of the wind farm and GE’s state-of-the-art power generation technology.

During the trip, engineers could be seen working high up within the structures, conducting testing in preparation for “flipping the switch” that will make the wind farm fully operational within weeks.

Conservation Law Foundation has been involved in the development of the Block Island Wind Farm for many years, promoting local engagement and environmental consideration in the use of the Rhode Island SAMP – the state’s ocean plan – and as an advocate for the endangered North Atlantic right whale during the project’s pre-construction activities. And now, as the first-in-the-nation Northeast Regional Ocean Plan is set for approval, the Block Island Wind Farm will serve as a “how-to guide” for agencies, developers, the military, and others seeking to implement this new ocean management tool.

Upcoming Blog Series

In the weeks ahead, we’ll dive deeper into the formation of the Deepwater Wind Block Island Wind farm, showcasing the steps taken to arrive at this history-making catalyst in New England’s clean energy future: We’ll see what it took to lay the groundwork for offshore wind in Rhode Island, beginning with a legislative mandate that was written by CLF; take a look at the role of ocean planning and bringing stakeholders together in the siting of the wind farm; hear from a local Block Island resident; and learn about CLF’s role in the future of offshore wind for New England.

Offshore wind energy in America is just beginning. When built with proper consideration of the marine life, communities, and other ocean resources in mind, offshore wind energy has the potential to change the game entirely in our quest to rely less and less on fossil fuels and more on clean, renewable energy.

The future is windy – which is to say the future is bright for New England’s renewable energy economy, environment, and for all of us.

Celebrate National Seafood Month with our Favorite Sustainable Seafood

Seafood and New England go together like peanut butter and jelly. In our country’s founding days, early Americans fished the bountiful seas and laid the foundation for a strong connection with the ocean and seafood that remains to this day.

Everyone knows the New England seafood favorites, like lobster and cod. And Americans in general tend to stick to just three types of seafood: shrimp, canned tuna, and salmon. But there are so many fish in the sea – pun intended – that we thought we’d celebrate National Seafood Month by letting you in on some of our staff’s own sustainable seafood favorites.

1 Fish, 2 Fish, Redfish…

“I tried Acadian Redfish for the first time in the summer of 2015. Since its nickname is “rose” fish, matching my middle name, I figured it was a good place to start. And I’m glad I did!

Stocks of redfish collapsed in the 80s, and though they were declared recovered in 2012 – having since reaching thriving levels – redfish hasn’t returned to dinner plates as ubiquitously as it was in the 1940s and 50s. So go retro, and enjoy some redfish for #SeafoodMonth. You can enjoy redfish grilled, baked, or pan-fried. Or check out this delicious spicy redfish tacos recipe from FishWatch!”
-Amanda Yanchury, Ocean Communications Associate

Blue Fish Mussels

“As a kid, if given the choice between pizza and seafood, I always chose seafood (and still do today). One of my seafood dishes of choice has always been mussels, and growing up in New England, this means blue mussels. It’s tough to beat the traditional garlic and olive oil mussel dish served with some fresh bread. And when I got older, I was happy to learn that mussels are considered one of the “best choice” seafoods to eat by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

In New England, and elsewhere in the U.S., mussels are typically grown rather than harvested from the wild; this can take place on suspended ropes or beds on the seafloor. They are fairly easy to raise because mussels get their food by filtering phytoplankton from the water column. They also improve water quality by filtering excess nutrients! Delicious and environmentally friendly – that’s a win-win for me.”
-Allison Lorenc, Ocean Conservation Program Assistant

Seaweed

“When folks think seafood, they don’t often think seaweed. But you should! Seaweed, the veggie of the sea, is both nutritious and delicious, with lots of protein and minerals and few fats and carbs. Seaweed has been a human food staple for millennia, and has recently been growing in popularity. This is good news for our ocean. Farmed seaweed cleans ocean water, requires few resources, and complements other fisheries.

I like to throw seaweed in soups – it can replace other greens and adds a tasty umami flavor. And although I’m not a vegan, I love this Caesar dressing featuring seaweed.”
-Megan Herzog, Staff Attorney

Runners-up

Swordfish: Sometimes caught with with handlines or harpoons, swordfish are an excellent seafood option because these manners of fishing are not harmful to the surrounding environment and bycatch is rare (meaning they don’t catch a lot of other marine life that must be thrown back). 

US Bluefish: Bluefish are sustainably managed and enjoy healthy population levels. You can feel good eating this fish knowing that the stocks are not in danger. Most bluefish are caught by recreational fishermen, whose hook-and-line gear has minimal impact on the environment. 

Black Sea Bass: Wild caught in Massachusetts, black sea bass is an excellent choice if you live in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, or further south. Its populations are abundant and sustainably managed. 

Americans eat less seafood than recommended, consuming fewer than 15 pounds on average per person each year. But as a healthy, protein-rich option, sustainable seafood is an excellent choice. Want to dive deeper? Check out these handy guides from FishWatch and Monterey Bay Aquarium for more options, recipes, tips on what to look for when purchasing seafood, and more!

CLF at Our Ocean Conference 2016: The Gulf of Maine Requires Our Attention

At the third annual international Our Ocean Conference earlier this month, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, 136 new initiatives on marine conservation and protection – valued at $5.24 billion – were committed, and more than 1.5 million square miles of newly protected marine areas were established.

In between commitments from the countries of Sri Lanka and Panama, Conservation Law Foundation Vice President and Director of Ocean Conservation Dr. Priscilla Brooks took to the microphone to address heads of states and environment ministers from around the world. On this global stage, we announced an $8 million commitment to address climate impacts in the Gulf of Maine, where water temperatures are rising faster than virtually any other ocean area in the world.

Earlier in the week, President Obama made history when he announced the permanent protection of the first marine habitats in the Atlantic: the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Covering almost 5,000 square miles, this designation will protect centuries-old coral formations, endangered marine mammals and other treasured marine life, and will provide a living laboratory for continued scientific discovery.Our commitment includes working with partners to reduce regional carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020, and to increasing the climate resiliency of the Gulf of Maine by protecting important habitats such as Cashes Ledge.

In coalition with groups like Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Pew Charitable Trusts, New England Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium and many other educational organizations, marine scientists, and others, CLF advocated for the permanent protection of not just the three canyons and four seamounts that made the cut for the final monument area, but also for two additional deep-sea canyons and an area in the Gulf of Maine called Cashes Ledge.

With our renewed commitment, CLF’s efforts will continue. With so many leaders committing to ocean protections, the ocean’s importance to climate change solutions is clear.

The Gulf of Maine: High in Importance; Highly in Distress

According to scientist Andy Pershing, who in 2014 published a paper saying the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of ocean areas, temperatures used to increase by about 0.05 degrees per year, from 1982 until 2004. But in the years since, that pace sped up – increasing by about a half-degree per year. That’s 10 times faster than normal.

Certain atmospheric events could be pushing heat into the Gulf, and the complexity of the area’s ecosystems may contribute – but scientists aren’t sure about the exact causes behind this alarming trend.

What is certain, however, is that it’s a major problem.

From lobsters moving northward in search of cooler temperatures, to weakening species gene pools that could disrupt entire food webs, a warmer Gulf of Maine has the potential to wreak havoc on our fisheries, recreational activities, and even tourism, which contributes significantly to healthy coastal economies. What’s needed to solve this problem is likely just as complex as the Gulf of Maine itself.

That’s why CLF is taking a multi-pronged approach, and that’s why it was important to announce our commitment on a global platform. Lowering greenhouse gas emissions is necessary and prudent, and will remain an unwavering key component of any strategy combating climate change in the years to come.

But an additional commitment to resiliency is particularly key for the Gulf of Maine. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was excellent and unprecedented progress, and we must expand upon that progress by designating a similar fully protected marine reserve in the Gulf of Maine.

Large marine reserves are critical reference sites for scientists to understand how increasing ocean temperatures, increased ocean acidity, and increased freshwater flow into the Gulf of Maine are changing species productivity and ecosystem function.

Scientists also believe fully protected marine areas are more resilient to the negative effects of climate change than their unprotected counterparts. According to regional marine expert and Mystic Aquarium scientist Dr. Peter Auster, “As human activities reach deeper and deeper into the sea, it will be critically important to have places that we protect in perpetuity to serve as reservoirs of the genetic diversity within species that could allow them to adapt to new conditions caused by a changing climate.”

A comprehensive body of research by Auster and another regional marine scientist, Dr. Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium, was presented in March that showed how key areas – the entire Canyons and Seamounts area along with the Cashes Ledge area – were scientifically worthy of this full level of protection.

Cashes Ledge has an abundance of marine species and a wide variety of habitats, and is considered a “biodiversity hotspot.” It is well-documented by marine ecologists, and its beauty has been captured by National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry. Since 2012, Cashes Ledge has inspired its own constituency of advocates who may never set a flipper in Cashes’ waters, but will campaign to permanently protect it for as long as it takes.

We are incredibly thankful for the leadership of President Obama and the State Department, and for Senator Richard Blumenthal and additional New England members of congress for making the proposal to protect New England’s canyons and seamounts a reality.

In the words of renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle: “Now, let’s finish the job!”

Click here to say “Thank You” to President Obama for the first marine national monument in the U.S. Atlantic!

Say “Thank You” to President Obama for the First Marine Monument in the Atlantic

President Obama made history last week, announcing the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – the first in the U.S. Atlantic!

Click here to send a “Thank You” message to President Obama for taking action for our oceans.

The announcement came during the third annual Our Ocean Conference, hosted by the U.S. Department of State, where world leaders came together to announce commitments (in money or action) to help address the critical issues facing the ocean – and all of us who rely on it.

This is a historic moment for our ocean, which is facing enormous pressures from climate change, overfishing, and increasing industrialization. The monument in New England will permanently protect four seamounts and three undersea canyons from human threats, allowing centuries-old coral formations and rare marine species to thrive. Scientists believe large, fully-protected marine areas are also more resilient to negative impacts from climate change, which will be paramount in the coming years as we aim to address this problem on a global and local level.

Check out our Seamounts Species Spotlight series to learn more about some of the critters found in these areas. And take a moment to “Like” our Facebook page, where we – along with other regional and national organizations – will continue to share information and build support for the permanent protection of additional critical ocean areas.