Redefining Open Space: The Case for Protecting Open Space in the Sea

Nestled on Massachusetts’ North Shore, Ipswich is an historic New England community with a vibrant town center, friendly people, and working farms.

What really strikes visitors to this small town, however, is its open space. A remarkable 47 percent of the town is protected. People here seem to share a common, almost innate understanding that their quality of life is intimately tied to their open space – and that they need green spaces to balance a landscape increasingly developed for housing and commerce.

The people of Ipswich are not alone – New England boasts 500 land trusts working to protect the places that make living in this corner of the country so special. Across the country, the number of active land trusts tops out at more than 1,700, which, together, have conserved 47 million acres of land. That number of protected acres only gets bigger when you add in state and national park systems and wildlife refuges.

So, when I think about the concept of open space in the ocean, I am confounded by how differently we treat our saltwater resources. There’s not even a term for open space at sea. I know, for many of us, the vast blue expanse of the ocean looks like nothing but “open space.” But beneath the waves is a landscape as diverse, breathtaking, and dramatic as any on land – a dynamic seascape of boulder reefs, hard and soft corals, luxuriant kelp forests, muddy basins, ever-changing sand plains, and beautiful canyons full of exotic marine life.

Yet only a fraction of our oceans – barely two percent – is permanently protected worldwide.

Surely in the same way that we bank away critical portions of our terrestrial landscape for its inherent value, we can protect equally vital seascapes so that our ocean can survive and thrive for generations to come. That protection should follow the same principles as on land, which we manage for multiple uses. We need appropriate places to develop and site clean renewable offshore wind energy, for example. And, we need fishing grounds to support our venerable fishing industry and the production of the delicious seafood for which our coastal regions are renowned.

But we also have to acknowledge that fishing, while important, is not a benign activity; few exploitative industries are. And some fishing gear – trawls and dredges, in particular – are more destructive than others. Our decisions about how to manage the ocean, then, must balance both realities. That’s why Conservation Law Foundation is pushing to protect some of New England’s most remarkable – and vulnerable – ocean open spaces before they are damaged beyond repair.

Cashes Ledge is one of those vulnerable places. Located in the Gulf of Maine about 80 miles from Portland, Maine, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, Cashes Ledge rivals any earthbound landscape in beauty, biodiversity, and grandeur. The steep ridges and deep basins along this 25-mile-long mountain range create ideal conditions for marine life as currents mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water from the top of the water column to the seafloor far below. Home to the deepest and largest cold-water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard, Cashes Ledge provides an important source of food and a diverse habitat for fish, sharks, marine mammals, and an astounding array of invertebrates. This diversity also makes it a valuable open-sea laboratory for scientists studying ocean ecosystems and the impacts of climate change.

Marine life on Cashes Ledge. Photo credit: Brian Skerry
Marine life on Cashes Ledge. Photo credit: Brian Skerry

For the past 12 years Cashes Ledge and the area surrounding it have been closed to most commercial fishing – and it shows. The area is lush and productive, a refuge not only for threatened groundfish like Atlantic cod, but also for rare species such as Atlantic wolffish and North Atlantic right whales. As I write, however, federal fisheries managers are considering a proposal to re-open the whole area to the most harmful kinds of commercial fishing, which could devastate this prized seascape.

Cashes Ledge is one of those remarkable places that few people will ever get to experience for themselves – only the most skilled divers attempt to explore its depths. To help expose the underwater beauty and diversity of Cashes Ledge, Conservation Law Foundation has partnered with noted marine photojournalist Brian Skerry, a contributing photographer to National Geographic Magazine and a National Geographic Photography Fellow. During his long career, Brian has photographed oceanscapes around the world, documenting their beauty and their fragility for all of us to see. Now he’s come back home to his native New England waters, capturing through his expert lens Cashes Ledge’s rainforest-like kelp forest, expansive mussel beds, sea stars and sea anemones, red Atlantic cod and cunner, and so much more.

Brian knows that seeing is believing – and he shares with us a conviction that, by revealing the wonder of Cashes Ledge through his dramatic and mesmerizing photography, we can inspire people’s passion for its protection, a passion as strong as any stirred by our most beloved landscapes.

We can – we must – change the way we think about ocean open spaces, and move forward meaningful protection for our most vital seascapes, places like Cashes Ledge.

Priscilla Brooks is the Director of Ocean Conservation at Conservation Law Foundation where she works to restore and protect New England’s ocean wildlife and habitats.

Video: Take a 5-Minute Dive on Cashes Ledge

If only everyone could see and experience the wonder of Cashes Ledge for themselves, we know they would feel as passionate about protecting it as we do. That’s why we’re excited to share with you this new video, filmed with our partner, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, Brown University Biologist Jon Witman, and local fishermen. We hope you’ll agree that this video, which features stunning new footage by underwater videographer Evan Kovacs, brings Cashes Ledge to life in a whole new way.

Cashes Ledge is unlike anyplace you’ll find on land or sea – one of the most dynamic hotspots of biodiversity in New England and the entire North Atlantic. But it’s in danger. Cashes Ledge has been protected from the most harmful fishing practices for more than 10 years. But this amazing preserve for fish and ocean wildlife may be just a few months away from having its protected status revoked.

We need your help to make sure that doesn’t happen. You can make a difference for Cashes in just two easy steps:

First, if you haven’t already, please sign our petition to NOAA today, asking them to protect Cashes Ledge.

And second, share this video far and wide with your friends, colleagues, and networks, and ask them to sign our petition and support our work. Because we need many more passionate people like you to take action, today, to protect this remarkable marine refuge.

It’s going to take all of us raising our voices loudly and clearly to protect Cashes Ledge. Thank you for your commitment and for being part of the New England Ocean Odyssey community.

Why Not Go for a Swim? It’s Polar Bear Plunge Season!

Winter in New England is not for the faint of heart. Ice, snow, frigid cold temperatures and a biting wind  require residents of the region to steel themselves against sometimes ferocious weather. Shoveling sidewalks and driveways and trudging into the office through the wind tunnels created by the city skyscrapers can be a miserable experience.

For some us, though, the winter snow and freezing temperatures magically transforms our landscape — unlocking a winter wonderland of outdoor recreation. We can’t wait to head for the mountains to ski or slap on a pair of skates to glide, or more often, bump along  the frozen lakes and ponds. And there is nothing more exciting than flying down the backyard hills on sleds and saucers with your kids holding on for dear life.

But the holidays also bring out the most peculiar of New England winter traditions – the Polar Bear Plunge. In the coming week, tens of thousands of New Englanders will take to beaches across the region en masse on Christmas and New Years Day for an invigorating dip in the ocean. Why? Well, according to Bernaar MacFadden, the founder of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which claims to be the oldest “winter bathing” organization in the United States, swimming in the ocean in the wintertime is “a boon to one’s stamina, virility and immunity.”

I suppose a plunge into 45 degrees Fahrenheit water (and that’s what the sea surface temperature currently is registering at the Jeffrey’s Ledge weather buoy in the Gulf of Maine), might have a way of making you feel alive, but the true health benefits of shocking your system are up for debate. Some doctors advise caution before taking a winter swim, as the rush of adrenaline caused by the coldwater plunge can cause hyperventilation and irregular heart rhythms.

But that doesn’t stop the South Boston’s L Street Brownies who have been jumping into the ocean off Carson Beach every New Year’s Day since 1904, after one member reportedly posed the simple question, “Why don’t we go for a swim?” Whatever the risk, communities up and down the New England coast will flock to the seaside, run and jump wildly in and out of the ocean and once again celebrate sea no matter what the season. Why not go for a swim? Happy holidays to all!

Celebrating World Oceans Day the New England Way

There has never been a better time to care about the ocean than now. The ocean provides us with so many things – half of the air we breathe, an amazing variety of things to eat, a place of beauty and refuge and sometimes fury. This year the New England coast line was pummeled by tropical storms and Northeasters, reminding us yet again that our glorious ocean is powerful, relentless and unforgiving. Despite our ingenuity and technical know-how, we live in a natural and changing environment and need to better plan and protect our ocean ourselves going forward.

We used to think that the ocean was so big, and life in it so abundant, that nothing we did could harm it or exhaust its resources. But now, because of us, the ocean is changing fast and in dramatic ways. It is getting warmer, more acidic, and ever more crowded – as we consider new uses like tidal and wind energy development in addition to our historic ones like fishing, shipping, sailing and other recreation. The fabric of New England’s ocean ecosystems is changing, too. Previously depleted populations of sharks and seals are on the rise, while other species like Atlantic cod and yellowtail flounder have plummeted. And there’s evidence that the changing ocean chemistry will profoundly affect the entire food chain, from tiny plankton on up.

The time to care is now. With climate change affecting our oceans in ways we are only beginning to understand, now is the time to restore the health of our ocean so that it can be as resilient as possible to the changes that are coming. Ocean conservation has been part of our work at CLF since the mid-1970s when we were a scrappy little organization on Beacon Hill fighting the federal government and the oil industry over oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank – New England’s most important fishing grounds. We won that case, then won it again and again as the oil industry kept knocking on New England’s door. Ocean conservation is part of our history and is embedded in our DNA, and we are still working hard to  protect our ocean and keep it thriving for future generations of New Englanders in many ways:

 

 

 

  • Celebrating our beautiful ocean – Our New England Ocean Odyssey campaign is all about showcasing the amazing, breathtaking, important, and often strange things that lie beneath our waves. We have one of the most productive, diverse ocean ecosystems on the planet right off our shores, and we hope that by bringing you the gorgeous photography of Brian Skerry and others, and engaging stories, you will be inspired to help us protect it.

 

 

We will continue to fight these battles for a healthy ocean so we have more to celebrate next World Oceans Day, and the one after that, and beyond. Please stay with us on our voyage and be part of a better ocean future in New England.

Happy Birthday to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary!

Above – An endangered North Atlantic right whale, among the most beloved residents of Stellwagen Bank, moves along the surface of the water. 

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the designation of the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary – New England’s first and thus far only National Marine Sanctuary and one of only 13 National Marine Sanctuaries nationwide. Named in honor of a long time Massachusetts member of Congress and in recognition of its outstanding ecological importance to New England’s ocean, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary lies just 25 miles off the coast of Boston and encompasses an area approximately 842 square miles in size. Stellwagen Bank itself was named after Henry S. Stellwagen, a Lieutenant in the US Navy who first surveyed and mapped the area and its surround waters in 1854.

Geologists believe that Stellwagen Bank was originally dry land, wandered by wooly mammoths and mastodons, prior to being sculpted and forced underwater 14,000 years ago by the last Ice Age glaciers. Today’s Stellwagen Bank is incredibly diverse – home to more than 575 species, including sponges, corals, starfish, lobster, sea scallops, and squid. There are also many groundfish species, such as Atlantic cod, yellowtail flounder, and Atlantic wolffish. Schools of bluefin tuna and elegant blue sharks cruise the middle depths in search of prey, while 30-foot basking sharks and prehistoric ocean sunfish ride the surface currents. Although increasingly rare, loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles still live here, protected by the Endangered Species Act.

But Stellwagen Bank is perhaps best known for its 19 species of marine mammals – including seals, harbor porpoises, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and pilot, minke, finback, and humpback whales, the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (pictured above), and the 100-foot blue whale – the world’s largest animal.

 

A map of Stellwagen Bank, including the original shipping lanes (here called “Existing TSS”) and the current shipping lanes (“Proposed TSS”), which were shifted after intensive whale surveys informed a better route.

 

Stellwagen’s close proximity to land and its tremendous resources have drawn intensive human activity and uses that pose significant challenges to the long-term health of this special place.  When Stellwagen Bank NMS was designated in 1992, a prohibition on oil and gas drilling and sand and graveling mining within the Sanctuary was imposed, but the designation established little in the way of new protections for its living marine resources.

Intensive commercial and recreational fishing takes place throughout the sanctuary for species such as cod, haddock, flounder, tuna, herring, and lobster. And although it is a National Marine Sanctuary, bottom trawling occurs throughout much of the area threatening seafloor habitats. Hundreds of large cargo ships cut through the middle of the Sanctuary throughout the year traveling along the shipping lanes into Boston, presenting a threat to surface feeding North Atlantic right whales that are prone to ship strikes. The Sanctuary is working to minimize this harm, and has done extensive work to understand where the whales are most likely to be in the Sanctuary, and has cooperated in altering the shipping lanes to be more protective.

Currently the Sanctuary is working to develop a much needed ecological research area that would allow managers to study the impacts of human activities on Stellwagen’s ecosystem and devise better protections for this special place.

This month, New England Ocean Odyssey is excited to celebrate Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary with spectacular photographs and stories of the work that the Sanctuary is doing to protect its precious resources.

Happy Birthday Stellwagen!

Celebrating World Oceans Day

On the occasion of World Oceans Day, it is worth reminding ourselves about how utterly dependent we are on the ocean – for the fish and shellfish that grace our dinner tables, for our summer recreation – on, in, and alongside our ocean – for the tremendous untapped renewable resources of the wind, waves and tides, and for transportation of people and goods. Oh yes, and the air – up to 70% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by the plankton in the ocean. That’s more than from all the world’s rain forests combined. The ocean absorbs around half  of our carbon dioxide emissions and over 90% of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases. The ocean covers 70% of our planet and regulates the earth’s climate. Unfortunately the ocean is facing a host of troubles from climate change and acidification caused by all that carbon dioxide absorption, not to mention overfishing, seafloor habitat destruction and pollution – we need to be better stewards of this incredible resource.

As I walked on Crane Beach last weekend thinking about all of this, an early summer Northeaster whipped the ocean into a froth and unusually high tides threw up a wrack line of seaweed reaching as far as the wind sculpted sand dunes – leaving just a sliver of a beach. I was reminded that the ocean truly is the master and commander, and once again I felt humbled by the sea’s strength and beauty.  I was also a little frustrated by it. Why? Brian Skerry, weather permitting, will go on his first ever dive to one of New England’s most special places – Cashes Ledge –  this Saturday and Sunday.

Cashes Ledge, located 80 miles northeast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is a 25-mile long underwater mountain chain that hosts one of the most unique, dynamic and ecologically productive areas in the Gulf of Maine. The highest peak, Ammen Rock, rises steeply off the ocean floor from 460 feet below to within 40 feet of the ocean’s surface.  There is an unbelievable diversity of ocean wildlife in this special place: North Atlantic right whales (like the breaching one shown above), blue sharks, bluefin tuna, herring, cod, Atlantic wolffish, sea anemones, brittle stars, brilliantly colored sea sponges, and the deepest kelp forest in the Gulf of Maine. But most of us have never seen this underwater jewel and probably never will. Unless, that is, someone goes diving and brings back spectacular photographs.

Brian’s planned dive on Cashes is just one of the many that he will be doing as part of the New England Ocean Odyssey – our 5 year partnership to bring to light the magnificent beauty that lies beneath the surface of New England’s waves. Despite all that we know about the ocean and its role in our lives, it still holds tremendous mystery. And I am happy for some mystery in these days of ceaseless information flow coming over our personal transoms 24/7 through our computers and smart phones. There is still so much we don’t know about the ocean and so much we can’t see. So gazing out to sea on that cold windy day, I wondered about what lies beneath the surface of those wild waves. My curiosity will soon be bated – at least for one special place in the Gulf of Maine.

With any luck Brian will show us just what a magnificent place Cashes Ledge is. I say with any luck, because, well, the weather has been challenging as of late. I have been electronically tethered to the Cashes Ledge weather buoy – a remarkable device that sends hourly reports on the wind, waves, water and air temperature, atmospheric pressure – hoping it brings us good news!

At the height of this week’s Northeaster sustained wind speeds at the buoy reached 25 knots with gusts up to 35 knots. And the waves reached nearly 14 feet.  Not good for diving! But the weather seems to be moderating and we are hopeful that Brian and his dive crew will make it out to Cashes this weekend. If not this weekend, he’ll get out on another.  And I can’t wait to share his photographs with you! So today, on World Oceans Day, make sure you take the opportunity to thank our oceans for the mystery they still hold and for all that they do for each of us.