The Boston Globe Visits Cashes Ledge

If you picked up The Boston Globe on Sunday, you may have noticed this striking photograph of a scuba diver swimming through a lush, colorful kelp forest. The photo might have been familiar to you – it was taken by our friend Brian Skerry on Cashes Ledge, one of the most remarkable places in the Gulf of Maine.

The Globe’s front page article lays out some of the reasons why Cashes Ledge is so important – it says “the frigid waters and glacier-sculpted peaks are home to a billowy kelp forest and an abundant array of life, from multicolored anemones to cod the size of refrigerators,” notes that the ledge has been protected from trawling for over a decade, creating a sanctuary of biodiversity, and acknowledges the importance of Cashes Ledge as a breeding ground for depleted cod.

But the article also points out that Cashes Ledge is at immediate risk. This fall, the New England Fishery Management Council is considering reopening Cashes Ledge to bottom trawling. Its current favored proposal would eliminate protection for three quarters of the current closure and threaten this thriving ecosystem. The Globe asked Brian Skerry what he thought of this proposal, and he couldn’t have been more clear: “Protection must happen now if there is any hope of holding on to what remains.”

We think Cashes Ledge deserves protection. Check out the Globe’s article, and if you agree, please sign our petition asking fisheries managers to maintain full protection for Cashes Ledge and the surrounding areas.

Brian Skerry’s Photos from the Isles of Shoals – Part 2

Here’s another batch of Brian Skerry’s pictures from our recent dive expedition. Brian took these beautiful photographs while diving the Isles of Shoals, a group of nine small islands a few miles off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. Brian dived alongside Brown University professor Jon Witman, a marine ecologist who has been studying the communities of sea life at Isles of Shoals for decades. On these dives, Jon was particularly interested in studying the density of kelp blanketing the rocky seafloor—but as Brian’s photos show, there’s an incredible diversity of fish and invertebrates there, too.

The photo at the top of this post shows a pair of northern red anemones clinging to a rocky outcropping, highlighting the striking variability in color and pattern they can display.

 

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This photo shows another type of anemone common in the Gulf of Maine—frilled anemones. These anemones favor areas with a strong current that carries a steady stream of food—copepods, amphipods, and larvae.

 

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Sand dollars are familiar to most people as pale white circular shells, but live sand dollars are far more colorful. Along with urchins and sea stars, they’re a type of echinoderm—a name that means “spiny skin.”

 

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This colorful sculpin is nestled among equally vibrant kelp and algae. Sculpin feature spines on their heads and notoriously voracious appetites for bait.

Brian Skerry’s Photos from the Isles of Shoals – Part 1

We’re very happy to show you the first of Brian Skerry’s pictures from our recent dive expeditions. Brian took these beautiful photographs while diving the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands and ledges a few miles off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. These islands have a remarkable history as centers of fishing, trading, research, and tourism, stretching from before European settlement to the present day. They’re remarkable beneath the surface, too—the islands harbor rich communities of kelp, fish, and invertebrates, and also host harbor seals and pods of dolphins and whales. Brian’s photos provide an amazing glimpse into life on the seafloor at the Isles of Shoals.

In the photo at the top of this post, a sculpin peers out through shotgun kelp. Shotgun kelp gets its name from its perforated appearance that makes it look like it’s been shot full of holes. This photograph also shows the dense multicolored communities that encrust the seafloor.

 

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A beautiful northern red anemone stands out brilliantly against the seafloor. These anemones prefer rocky habitat like that found at the Isles of Shoals and at Cashes Ledge.

 

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A jonah crab lurks among kelp and algae. Jonah crabs are closely related to the Pacific’s famous Dungeness crabs, and have been fished commercially since the 1970s.

 

Isle of Shoals, NH

An American lobster shows off its claws. Lobsters comprise about 80 percent of Maine’s fishing revenues, but they’re sensitive to temperature and may be particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change and acidification.

Stay tuned for more pictures to come!

Celebrating New England’s Oceans on World Oceans Day

This Sunday is World Oceans Day, an international event to celebrate and honor the ocean. This year, volunteers have organized events in locations around the world, from Massachusetts to Mozambique. The message of the day is simple—our oceans are valuable but at risk, and there are easy steps all of us can take to help.

World Oceans Day is a global event, but we thought we’d bring it back home to New England by celebrating the incredible marine habitat in the Gulf of Maine. For the past two weeks, Conservation Law Foundation’s dive team has been exploring some of the amazing places in the Gulf of Maine, from the inshore Isles of Shoals to the incredible Cashes Ledge, 100 miles off the Maine coast.

Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range whose steep ridges mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water, creating a very productive environment. The ledge harbors the largest and deepest kelp forest off the east coast; our divers tell us the kelp on Cashes is so lush and dense it can be tricky to even see the seafloor and navigate along the bottom. To give you an idea of what diving in the kelp looks like, here’s a video from one of the team’s previous trips to Cashes Ledge, taken by videographer Lu Lamar.

The area around Cashes Ledge has been protected for over a decade, but unfortunately, this incredible habitat is now at risk of being opened to commercial trawling. The current proposal under consideration by NOAA and the New England Fishery Management Council would eliminate protection for three quarters of the area around Cashes Ledge. World Oceans Day is a perfect reminder that healthy oceans need healthy habitat, and the incredible ecosystem on Cashes Ledge is worth protecting for good.

You can join in the World Oceans Day festivities by finding an event on the website—there are lots of events in towns across New England, from 5Ks to surfing meet-ups. You can also take a “selfie for the sea”—a photo of yourself doing something for the ocean or making a promise to protect it—and post it with the hashtag #WorldOceansDay. And if you’d like to help protect marine habitat right here in New England,you can help ask NOAA to maintain full protection for the area surrounding Cashes Ledge by signing our petition here.

Meet Our Dive Team

 

With our dive team busy exploring Cashes Ledge and other sites in the Gulf of Maine, we thought we’d introduce you to our star-studded team of ocean adventurers!

 

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Brian Skerry is a renowned underwater photographer praised around the world for his aesthetic sense and evocative scenes. His images tell stories that not only celebrate the mystery and beauty of the sea, but also help bring attention to the threats that endanger our oceans and their inhabitants.

A contributing photographer for National Geographic Magazine since 1998, Brian has covered a wide range of stories, from the harp seal’s struggle to survive in frozen waters to the alarming decrease in the world’s fisheries. His latest book, a 160-photo monograph entitled Ocean Soul, was published in 2011.

Skerry is also a passionate ocean advocate. After three decades of exploring the world’s oceans, the Massachusetts native has returned to the Gulf of Maine to document and protect its exceptional diversity of marine wildlife and habitat.

 

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Jon Witman is a professor of biology at Brown University. He has studied the ecology of subtidal marine communities for over 30 years, and has conducted research in six of the world’s seven oceans.

Jon led the first ecological study of overfishing in the Gulf of Maine. He has published numerous per-reviewed papers and book chapters on the invertebrate and fish communities that thrive on the rocky seafloor at Cashes Ledge, and he has also studied the internal waves that support primary productivity in the area. He is committed to protecting the ecological and scientific value of this unique marine habitat.

Jon will also be joined on the expedition by his Ph.D. student Robby Lamb.

 

EvanKovacs

Evan Kovacs started his filming career in 2003 on the History Channel’s underwater adventure series Deep Sea Detectives.  He has also had an ongoing filming relationship with the Emmy award winning Lonewolf Documentary Group, and recently the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

With WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab, Evan has filmed on the deep submersible ALVIN and the ROV Jason. Currently he is working with the lab to develop the next generation of 3D and 2D cameras and shooting techniques for topside and underwater imaging. Evan has been diving for over 18 years and has dived on shipwrecks, caves and reefs across the world.

 

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Luis Lamar is a scientific technician with WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab. He has filmed and photographed marine life around the world, from New Zealand to Micronesia. Lu has assisted Brian Skerry on numerous dive expeditions and has captured video of the kelp forests on Cashes Ledge for Conservation Law Foundation.

 

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Ken Houtler is the captain of WHOI’s R/V Tioga, a research boat launched in 2004 and designed for day and overnight trips in coastal waters. Ken has led the vessel on countless research expeditions in New England waters, including trips to deploy and recover autonomous oceanographic instruments, to collect data on harmful algal blooms, and to tag endangered North Atlantic right whales.

 

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Liz Kintzing is the expedition’s dive captain. Liz supervises the academic diving program at the University of New Hampshire’s School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, and she also sits on the board of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. She has been diving with Jon Witman on Cashes Ledge for over 20 years.

Dive In with Brian Skerry as He Prepares to Photograph Cashes Ledge

Over the past two years, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has taken us on an incredible tour of some of our region’s marine life—from blue sharks to red cod to North Atlantic right whales.

We now have some exciting news to share with you all—over the next two weeks, Brian Skerry will return to the Gulf of Maine and Cashes Ledge to photograph more of New England’s incredible marine life and habitat!

Brian has photographed marine life around the world—from China to Spain and everywhere in between—so we’re excited to have him return to his native New England waters (he’s originally from Uxbridge, MA). Brian has called New England Ocean Odyssey “an opportunity to bring my fellow New Englanders along with me and show them that our ocean is every bit as thrilling and surprising and beautiful as seemingly more exotic locales.”

From May 25 to June 6, Brian will dive from the R/V Tioga out of Portsmouth, NH. The ultimate goal: to return to Cashes Ledge, an ecological marvel 100 miles off the Maine coast. This underwater mountain range rises to within 40 feet of the surface. Being so close to the surface exposes this mountaintop to sunlight, and its steep topography creates internal waves that mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water. This mixing supports incredible productivity, including the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. The diverse habitat of Cashes Ledge draws in an incredible array of marine wildlife—rare anemones and sponges, fish like cod, wolffish, and bluefin tuna, blue and porbeagle sharks, and endangered North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales.

The exact dive locations will depend on a lot of factors, like weather and visibility, but Brian and the team are hoping to visit sites from the inshore Isles of Shoals to more far-flung locations, including Cashes Ledge. Along the way, Brian will be joined by a team of ocean scientists, advocates, photographers, and videographers, including Dr. Jon Witman, 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. We’ll be introducing more members of our dive team to you over the next two weeks.

Brian and the entire team are looking forward to exploring some of the incredible habitat the Gulf of Maine has to offer, from rocky shoals to anemone beds to lush kelp forests. Over the next two weeks, be sure to follow Conservation Law Foundation and New England Ocean Odyssey on Facebook and on Twitter at #CLFDive2014 as we share snapshots and updates from this one-of-a-kind expedition. With Brian as our guide, we look forward to revealing more of the amazing wonders beneath New England’s waves.

New England’s Endangered Living Fossils

Tomorrow, the US will observe Endangered Species Day, an opportunity to “recognize
the national conservation effort to protect our nation’s endangered species and their habitats.”

If you’re a regular New England Ocean Odyssey reader, you’re probably already familiar with some of New England’s endangered marine species—Atlantic salmon, leatherback sea turtles, and North Atlantic right whales, for example. You also know how important protecting important habitat areas can be to the conservation and recovery of these incredible animals.

In honor of Endangered Species Day, we thought we’d introduce you to one of New England’s weirder endangered species: sturgeon.

There are actually two species of sturgeon found in New England—shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon. Once, sturgeon were so common in east coast streams and coastal waters that settlers considered them a navigational hazard, since they tended to leap out of the water and directly into passing boats.

These once-plentiful sturgeon populations have declined sharply since the 1800s due to overfishing for meat and caviar. Shortnose sturgeon have long been considered endangered throughout their entire range, which stretches from New Brunswick to Florida. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service placed a coast-wide moratorium on catching Atlantic sturgeon in 1998. In 2012, most populations of Atlantic sturgeon were also placed on the endangered species list, with the exception of the Gulf of Maine population, which is listed as threatened.

Sturgeon are basically living fossils and are one of the oldest existing families of bony fish—they’ve been around since the Cretaceous period, 120 million years ago. They don’t have scales, but are covered with bony plates called scutes. Atlantic sturgeon can reach an insane 60 years old and fifteen feet long. Within the past month, a six-foot sturgeon washed up in the Delaware River and a seven-foot sturgeon washed up in the Connecticut River—and both of these fish were just juveniles.

Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous, meaning they split their time between freshwater and saltwater. Generally, sturgeon remain in brackish streams until they’re about six years old. They then reach maturity in the ocean before returning upstream to spawn. Female sturgeon don’t spawn until they’re about 15 years old and only spawn once every 2-6 years, meaning populations are slow to grow and recover. Sturgeon larvae also need cool, clean, flowing water to survive, making upstream habitat restoration a crucial part of sturgeon recovery.

Interested in learning more about these endangered fish? NOAA is holding an Endangered Species Day Sturgeon Tweet Chat with NOAA Fisheries Scientist Jason Kahn today from 2-3 p.m. ET. Tweet @NOAAFisheries with the hashtag #ESDaychat to join in.

Image via NOAA/Robert Michelson

Ghost Gear Busters!

We’re all familiar with some of the impacts that active fishing gear can have on marine wildlife and habitat. But did you know that this gear can keep on fishing, all on its own, long after it’s lost or abandoned?

Almost anyone who’s gone diving in New England has seen lost lobster traps, lines, and pieces of nets on the ocean floor. This abandoned or lost fishing gear is just one of many types of marine debris that litter our coasts and oceans. It’s often called “ghost gear,” and it’s responsible for “ghost fishing.”

The term “ghost fishing” first gained global attention at the 16th Session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries in April 1985. In 2009, the FAO published a full study of what it calls “Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear.”  The report notes how difficult it is to estimate how much ghost gear is out there. But with some anecdotal reports saying New England lobster fishermen, for example, may lose around 20 percent of their pots each year, it’s likely to be a lot.

Very little of this gear is intentionally discarded by fishermen. Vandalism, gear conflicts, and tough fishing conditions are likely responsible for a large portion of gear loss, and storms and strong currents also play a big role in dislodging fishing gear. The 2004 tsunami, for example, caused a major loss of gear and a debris problem in the Indian Ocean. In the northeast, Superstorm Sandy dislodged lots of fishing gear, which NOAA is now working to map and assess.

It’s also unclear exactly how much harm all this ghost gear is causing. We know that ghost gear continues catching fish, marine mammals, and sea turtles—including endangered species—long after it is abandoned. We also know that it can physically harm fragile bottom habitat like corals and kelp and that it can carry invasive species from one region to another. In addition to these environmental issues, ghost gear can create navigational hazards and safety problems and can interact negatively with active fishing gear. Some studies have attempted to quantify the effects of certain types of gear in certain areas, but without knowing how much ghost gear is in the ocean, it’s hard to know exactly what the impacts are.

The good news is that a strong community of divers, fishermen, conservationists, and other stakeholders has formed to remove this debris from the ocean and mitigate the effects of ghost fishing. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, created in 2006, provides technical advice and information to partner groups interested in removing marine debris. To date, it has collected more than 2.1 million pounds of gear.

Here in New England, its partner groups include Fishing for Energy, a partnership that works in two ways to mitigate the ghost fishing problem—first, by providing bins at ports for fishermen to easily dispose of derelict gear, and second, by providing funding to partnerships to remove marine debris. Recently, Fishing for Energy partnered with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and fishing crews from Cape Cod to remove nearly ten tons of ghost fishing gear, including 320 lobster traps.

Other groups like the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean have also been working to assess and remove marine debris in the Gulf of Maine for years. You can even get involved by conducting your own debris cleanup—whether walking on the shore or diving beneath the waves—and sending in information to be added to their database.

We still have a lot to learn about what ghost gear and other debris is out there, where we can find it, and what sort of impacts it’s having on marine ecosystems. In the meantime, collaborations between all ocean users can help lessen the impacts of ghost fishing.

Image credit: J. Cummings