Winter Home of Maine Puffins Revealed

Photo credit: NPS / Jim Pfeiffenberger

This piece was originally posted on It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

By Stephen Kress

Surprising migration takes puffins north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then south to underwater “coral canyons and seamounts” and Cashes Ledge off New England

Until this summer, the winter home of Maine puffins was largely unknown, but that has suddenly changed with revelations discovered this year.

The background leading up to this year’s discovery demonstrates the value of perseverance. In 2011, two first generation puffin geolocators were recovered from birds tagged at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in 2009 (geolocators do not transmit data and require recapture of the bird to download data).

The tags revealed a northward journey after the nesting season to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and north to the Labrador Sea, before a southward movement to the edge of the continental shelf for the remainder of the winter. This was big news–the first hint of the puffin’s then mysterious winter home. But these were just two birds and neither bird nested in subsequent years. This aroused suspicion that winter movements also could have been affected by the devices.

The quest for the puffin’s winter range continued in 2010-2012 when 38 smaller, new generation tags were attached to puffin leg bands. Although 30 of these were recovered and puffin behavior appeared normal, none contained data because of manufacturing defects. Despite this huge disappointment, 26 improved tags were attached to puffins in 2013 and 2014. By the summer of 2015, 20 of these were recovered and 17 contained useful data. These tags revealed a remarkable story.

The tagged puffins travelled northward in August to the western Gulf of St. Lawrence–a region known for abundant forage fish. The geolocators also showed that as days shortened, the puffins began heading south to the U.S. continental shelf–well offshore from New York and New Jersey where they spent the rest of the winter–before arriving back in Maine by early April. The exact routes remain a mystery.

Puffin on Deep Blue Sea at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Stephen Kress
Puffin on Deep Blue Sea at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Stephen Kress

The areas most frequented during the winter months were about 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod–including an area known as New England’s “coral canyons and seamounts.” This vast, largely unexplored area includes canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, along with submerged mountains (seamounts) noted for colorful corals, some as large as small trees. Puffins are likely attracted to the region because of productive upwelling currents that offer abundant food–the same conditions that favor whales, porpoise, tuna, sailfish, and seabirds. Cashes Ledge, another underwater mount inside the Gulf of Maine, was also popular with puffins as it is for whales and other sea-life.

The discovery that puffins winter over these canyons and seamounts and Cashes Ledge provides another reason to protect these areas from fishing, mining, and energy development. An initiative is now underway to protect these important areas as the first Atlantic marine national monument in the United States. These discoveries were first shared by Project Puffin biologists this past week with a poster presentation at the 43rd annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group.

This research was made possible by donations from Project Puffins supporters, especially Bill and Maryanne Perks, Shirley Egan and the late Robert Wanner.

Learn more about these fascinating seabirds at

Right Whales and Cashes Ledge: How to Make a Good Thing Last

By Tricia Jedele

In late January, North Atlantic right whales scored a big win when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expanded the critical habitat for the endangered whale from 4,500 square nautical miles to 28,000 square nautical miles.

The original area included only a portion of Cape Cod Bay and an area east of Nantucket near the Great South Channel. This major expansion adds almost all of the Gulf of Maine, east to Georges Bank, and south all the way to Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Gulf of Maine expansion includes Cashes Ledge – an area known for its rich biodiversity and abundance of fish and marine mammals and a place that CLF has been fighting to permanently protect for years.

This is great news for the North Atlantic right whale – the world’s most endangered large whale – and for those of us who care about saving it. Expanding the whale’s critical habitat means that federal agencies are thinking more systemically about what the right whale needs not just to survive but to once again thrive – designating not only places where the whales congregate to forage, but also the places that are critical for mating and calving.

This expansion is also a terrific example of ocean use planning in action. Before announcing the final decision, NOAA, through its National Marine Fisheries Service, called for public dialogue and input about the proposed expansion. It also allowed for new information to guide and influence its decisions around how to manage and permit other activities (like clean energy projects or industrial exploration) in the expanded areas going forward.

Critical Habitat is Good; Permanent Protection is Better – and Necessary

Right whale calf and mother

Right whale calf and mother. ©Brian Skerry

According to NOAA, calling an area “critical habitat” means that it contains physical or biological features essential to the conservation of a particular species – and those features may require special management considerations or protection.

Federal agencies looking to issue permits or companies seeking permits have to work with NOAA to avoid or reduce impacts from their activities on critical habitats. But, a critical habitat designation isn’t as protective as it sounds. It’s more like a “caution” sign than a stop sign. The designation doesn’t establish a refuge for the right whale or its food sources. And it doesn’t specifically put the area off limits or dictate that certain activities cannot occur.

For endangered species, functional critical habitat is the key to survival. We understand this concept well on land. One ongoing success story is China’s giant panda. People around the world are working to secure permanent protections for its habitats to ensure survival of the species. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has worked with the Chinese government to protect 27,000 acres of Pingwu County for the benefit of just 10 giant pandas.

Today, approximately 1,800 giant pandas remain worldwide. In comparison, just over 500 individual North Atlantic right whales are struggling to survive. Yet we have failed to to permanently protect even one acre of the habitat it needs to recover.

Considering that we know where some of the areas so critical to the North Atlantic right whale are, we need to ask why we’ve been successful in protecting lands critical for terrestrial species, but we haven’t given this same level of protection – or attention – to marine species. Cashes Ledge, a small area in the Gulf of Maine, is uniformly recognized as a scientific marine treasure, and already closed to most fishing. Permanently protecting this area would have little negative impact – yet the positive impact protection might have on the North Atlantic right whale could mean the difference between the species’ survival or its extinction.

Conservation Law Foundation believes that it is time to embrace the familiar land-based conservation principles and apply them, based on the best available scientific information, to permanently protect some of the most impressive and ecologically important ocean habitats and resources in the North Atlantic.

Dramatically expanding the critical habitat area for North Atlantic right whales was without question a good thing – and so was including Cashes Ledge in that designated area.

Let’s now take a good thing and make it even better by permanently protecting Cashes Ledge. Otherwise, this designation will just be a good thing that wasn’t quite good enough.

How Do You Enjoy the Northeast Coast?

The following is a message from Surfrider:

Do you love to walk along the ocean beaches, watch the magnificent marine wildlife, surf, sunbathe, kayak, SUP (stand up paddle board), canoe, swim, or engage in any other type of recreational ocean activity?  If so, your help is needed!

The Northeast Ocean Plan is in development and decision-makers need more information on how visitors and residents enjoy the Northeast coast.  This survey is a proactive opportunity for beach lovers who are 18+ years old to provide that missing information, to help identity New England’s recreational areas and uses so they are part of the ocean planning process.

If you don’t identify your special coastal place, who will?

Take the survey today and share the link with your friends!

For more information, contact Melissa Gates or visit and


Image via Shuttershock

Help Put New England’s Ocean Recreation Hotspots on the Map!

Guest Blog by Melissa Gates, Surfrider Foundation Northeast Regional Manager. This post was originally featured on Healthy Oceans Coalition.

A new study to characterize coastal and marine recreational activity in New England has been launched to support the Northeast regional ocean planning process.  Directed by the Northeast Regional Planning Body and led by Point 97, SeaPlan, and the Surfrider Foundation, the project will collect information on a variety of recreational uses such as beach going, wildlife viewing, surfing, and kayaking.

SeaPlan is collaborating with industry leaders such as charter boat operators and event organizers to determine data collection approaches and map sailing regattas, commercial whale watching, SCUBA diving and marine events.

Surfrider is leading an opt-in online survey effort to collect data from individuals who are 18+ years of age and have visited New England’s coast at least once in the last 12 months.

The survey launched on November 13, 2014, and will be available online through midnight on April 30, 2015 (survey overview video).

Information collected through this survey includes where and how people enjoy New England’s ocean and coast in low-impact, non-consumptive ways, such as walking along the shore, wildlife watching, surfing, kayaking and swimming.  Data collected will help identify spatial information for recreational uses in the Northeast, as well as associated economic values.

Register to take the survey:!

The study results will be published in a final report and spatial data layers will be incorporated into the Northeast Ocean Data Portal to assist the Northeast Regional Planning Body with the ocean planning process.

“Any successful ocean planning effort relies on science-based, credible information about our ocean uses and natural resources, collected through tools like this recreational use survey.  By better understanding the regional nature of ocean activities, habitat, marine life and ocean processes, we can work together to make more informed decisions about how we manage the ocean here in New England,” says Betsy Nicholson from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and federal co-lead of the Northeast Regional Planning Body.

Coastal recreation is widely practiced throughout the United States from beach going to surfing, but little data exists on what specific activities people participate in, where these uses occur, and the related economic benefits. Reports demonstrate that coastal tourism and recreation is the largest contributing sector to New England’s ocean GDP but there is a significant gap in spatial data tying these economic drivers to the social values of specific locations. To address this need the Surfrider Foundation and Point 97 are involved in similar studies across the coastal U.S., including completed efforts in the state of Oregon as well as the Mid-Atlantic region, and a current study in Washington State.  SeaPlan has also been engaged in characterization studies, such as this motorized boater use project:

To learn more about the Northeast study and Surfrider Foundation’s involvement in Northeast regional ocean planning, visit:

To learn about volunteer opportunities to help promote participation in this study, contact Melissa Gates at 207-706-6378 or via email at mgates [at] surfrider [dot] org.

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches through conservation, activism, research and education.

Exploring a Unique Biodiversity Hotspot In the Gulf of Maine

This post was originally featured on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Portal

By Jon Witman, Professor of Biology at Brown University

Cashes Ledge is a wild, special place in the heart of the Gulf of Maine. This underwater mountain range is home to a great diversity of life, with colors typically associated with a coral reef rather than a cold, northern environment. Its steep peaks reach almost to the ocean’s surface—a fact that historically made Cashes Ledge a dangerous place for fishermen, who could easily snag and rip or lose their nets on the jagged underwater mountaintops. As a result, the thriving ecosystems on the Ledge have been relatively undisturbed by people for centuries. To promote the rebuilding of New England’s depleted groundfish populations including Atlantic cod, fishery managers closed Cashes Ledge and the area around it in 2002 to commercial bottom trawling and dredging – affording this special place some protection. Cashes Ledge provides scientists with a rare underwater laboratory to see into the past wildlife of the Gulf of Maine, observe changes in species abundance and distribution over time, and, increasingly, witness the impacts of humans and climate change on the marine environment.

As marine ecologist at Brown University, I have been studying Cashes Ledge for more than thirty years. For the past two years, National Geographic photojournalist Brian Skerry and I have led a team of scientists, photographers and videographers on a series of dive expeditions to document the ecological importance of Cashes Ledge and its impressive array of marine wildlife and seascapes. Our team set out to answer one question: why is Cashes Ledge so special? The answer to this question is simultaneously straightforward and multi-faceted.

The dramatic topography and dynamic ocean currents around the ledge create a unique environment where nutrient- and oxygen-rich waters mix while being exposed to sunlight. This creates ideal conditions for a spectacular array of diverse marine life. One can see whales (minke, right, humpback, pilot), basking sharks and Atlantic white-sided dolphins at the surface. In the mid-water column it is not unusual to see schools of herring, squid and bluefin tuna. Blue sharks may be seen at any depth, particularly toward the end of summer. Close to and on the seafloor of Cashes Ledge there are cod (including an unusual “red” cod), haddock, pollock, wolfish, big clusters of sea anemones, delicate feather stars called crinoids, and rare sponges and sea squirts typical of sub-arctic areas of Scandinavia. The average number of species of invertebrates, like sponges, sea anemones and mollusks, living on underwater cliffs is higher on Cashes Ledge than elsewhere at comparable depths in the Gulf of Maine.

The underwater landscape there isn’t all rocky ridge. Just like the lower slopes of a mountain range, there are boulder and cobble fields on the deep flanks of the ledge. These grade into sedimentary habitats of sand, gravel and mud where large tube anemones (Cerianthus sp.) and northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) dot the deep landscape. Cashes Ledge also contains the largest and deepest continuous kelp forest in offshore waters of the eastern United States. It’s an incredibly productive ecosystem where the amount of kelp is hundreds of times more dense than what you would find at the same depth in coastal zones close to shore. Since the kelp is so dense at the bottom—40 plants per square meter on average—and large, it is dark under the canopy.

The kelp forest and the ledge itself provide many valuable goods and services to keep the offshore Gulf of Maine ecosystem healthy, vibrant, and productive. For example, we know from studies elsewhere that kelp detritus represents an energy-rich food source for marine life throughout the food web in habitats near and far. The kelp on Cashes Ledge acts as an ecosystem engineer by providing nursery habitat for many species, including commercially important fish such as Atlantic cod, pollock and the rare Atlantic wolfish, as well as a diverse array of invertebrates from mussels to shrimp.

Another reason why Cashes Ledge is so special traces back to our work in the 1980s, when we found that the Cashes Ledge ecosystem was like a time machine harking back to New England in the 1600s. Then, cod were so abundant that hook-and-line fishermen from England would fill up their boats with fish in several weeks. With time-lapse cameras and videos in the 1980s, we documented over 90 cod passing over a two-square meter area of seafloor in one hour on Cashes Ledge. In comparison, we saw no cod in an entire day or more at coastal sites where cod had been so abundant hundreds of years ago. Today, Cashes Ledge provides a refuge for cod which have been overfished throughout New England.

Cashes Ledge provides us with a view into what the past looked like, before humans touched all parts of the ocean. The biodiversity and productivity here make it a special place to visit, study and track through time.