Seamounts Species Spotlight: The Jelly-Like Ctenophore

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post in part 4 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

Glowing water is not just the stuff of sailor stories and fairy tales. In tropical regions, when the briny depths appear to be glowing, it is most likely a result of bioluminescent plankton. But here in the North Atlantic, there may be another culprit: the ctenophore.

Also known as “comb jellies” and “sea walnuts,” the ctenophore is a nearly transparent floating creature frequently misidentified as jellyfish. While similar, the ctenophore is actually in a phylum of its own (lower than kingdom; higher than class). This is due to differences in ctenophores and jellyfish in how embryos develop, and the physical appearance of adult individuals. Scientists estimate there are 150 species of these jelly-like creatures, found throughout the water column and in all the world’s oceans.

Important Differentiators 

Don’t worry if you see a ctenophore in the water – unlike jellyfish, ctenophores aren’t able to sting humans. To hunt for food, some do deploy tiny stinging cells, while others can engulf prey even larger than they are!

While there is no “typical” way to describe the ctenophore’s physical features, scientists can agree on a few facts: First, ctenophores are invertebrates, meaning they have no bone structure. This makes them appear to be simply floating in the water. Almost all species are small and transparent. One exception to this rule is the beautiful and large “Venus’ Girdle.” This species can grow up to a meter in length, is pale violet in color, and is found in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost all ctenophores are bioluminescent, meaning they glow.

A ctenophore can appear to be rainbow colored because when it swims, tiny hair-like structures on the outside of its body beat together so quickly that it deflects light into tiny rainbows. These fast-beating hairs are called cilia. Cilia are found arranged in eight rows on the outside of all ctenophores.

Although the ctenophore can live in many places throughout the water column and in most habitats, benthic (seafloor) varieties are difficult to come by. This makes them very challenging creatures to study, leaving scientists with much to learn about them.

In 2013, NOAA conducted an Okeanos Explorer Program Expedition within the New England Canyons area and had the rare opportunity to view and record a number of ctenophores (and many other unique critters). Clearly, an abundance of research opportunities lay in the lively communities of the Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

This is another reason why permanently protecting unique ocean habitats is so important. Who knows – this research that may provide marine science with its next big discovery!

Seamounts Species Spotlight: Bluefin Tuna

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post is part 3 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

Just imagine a 10-foot long, steel blue, torpedo-shaped body darting through the water of the open ocean and it’s easy to understand why the Atlantic Bluefin tuna is at the top of the oceanic food chain.

This predator is one of the ocean’s most impressive swimmers, built for quick and calculated movements as its body is smooth with retractable fins, allowing it to minimize drag and maximize speed. Tuna also go far: some individuals have been observed making multiple migrations between the United States and Europe each year.

These world travelers spend their summers feasting upon herring and eels in the waters of the Gulf of Maine. At some 1,500 pounds, tuna prefer to swallow prey whole and are considered a very aggressive predator. To maximize vision (presumably helping with predatory ability), tuna are even partially warm-blooded, a rare trait for a fish.

Mating Grounds Discovered Near Canyons and Seamounts

Many details of the fish’s behavior were unknown until recently. A study released this year revealed the discovery and confirmation of a previously unknown mating ground in the “Slope Sea,” an area of ocean between the Gulf Stream and continental shelf, which includes much of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area. The area was identified after poppy seed-sized larvae were detected in the waters with further analysis confirming their birthplace.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the Atlantic Bluefin tuna’s close relative, Pacific Bluefin tuna, an incredibly popular and valuable commodity in places across Asia. In 2013, a Pacific Bluefin went for a record $1.76 million in Tokyo.

The Pacific Bluefin’s global fame has, unfortunately, spelled collapse for global stocks. All three species of Bluefin tuna – Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern – are at risk of collapse because of human predation. The Atlantic population has decreased by as much as 51 percent in just three generations.

As a completely migratory species, comprehensive management has proven difficult, with responsibility currently falling to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). Currently, there is effort being placed on monitoring and accurately reporting the origins of each landing along with strict catch limits.

As we continue to discover more about these powerful fish, it is important that we protect the areas that they rely on, such as their feeding and breeding grounds. The discovery of a North Atlantic breeding ground requires much more study so managers can learn more about how to better manage this species. Permanently protected the New England Canyons and Seamounts is an excellent step in the right direction.

Seamounts Species Spotlight: North Atlantic Right Whale

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post is part 2 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

A rare sight in the open ocean, the North Atlantic right whale depends on the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area as a rich feeding zone each year beginning in early spring and lasting through the end of August.

A right whale is easily distinguishable from other species by its large head, two blow holes, and bumpy patches that dot its head and jawline. These rough patches of skin, called callosities, are frequently covered in microscopic sea lice which makes them appear white or orange. Each whale has a different callosities pattern, making individuals easily distinguishable from one another.

These massive critters can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh in at more than 70 tons by consuming hundreds of pounds of zooplankton and copepods each day, making them one of the largest baleen whale species. Right whales feed using the same method as all baleen whales: by taking in a huge mouthful of water and then pushing the water through its tooth-like baleen plates to catch tiny organisms.

The canyons and seamounts make for a reliable feeding area for the right whale, with high concentrations of food sources, and relatively few human disturbances (most of the canyons and seamounts don’t see much commercial fishing activity).

Despite their impressive size, right whales are very slow and were historically an easy and popular target for human hunters for centuries. Currently, the North Atlantic right whale is listed as endangered on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.

What’s in a Name?

Back during the heyday of whaling, this graceful creature was the “right” target for a whaler’s harpoon because of its high blubber content and tendency to float on the surface once killed. This is largely thought to be what first caused the population to crash.

Although the species has been internationally protected since 1949 by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the global population is estimated to be hovering between just 300-500 individuals. These low numbers may be in part due to small litter sizes, making it more difficult for populations to rebound – or because of continued accidental human interference in a variety of ways: Just this spring, a baby right whale died after an apparent ship strike near Cape Cod.

Reducing Human Threats

Right whales can frequently find themselves sharing the waters with boats, resulting in seriously harmful or fatal collisions. Off the coast of New England, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has been successful in moving shipping lanes to reduce the risk of commercial vessel strikes; a small 12 degree shift has the potential to reduce strikes by 58 percent. There has also been progress developing technologies to track whale activity that boats can use to help avoid collisions.

In other cases, development projects can pose threats, such as the Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm off Block Island. Deepwater Wind successfully worked with Conservation Law Foundation and other organizations, however, to halt pre-construction activities during times when right whales were known to be in the area.

Another significant threat to the right whale is fishing rope entanglement, which causes lacerations and infections and can make it difficult for the whale to dive and resurface. But, not all hope is lost: recent innovations in fishing rope production hope to minimize rope entanglement threats.

And, NOAA recently moved to significantly expand critical habitat for right whales, meaning federal agencies conducting permitting activities must work with NOAA Fisheries to avoid or reduce impacts on the critical habitat areas.

These actions are hugely helpful for this struggling species, but more will be needed to ensure population recovery. Comprehensive protection of feeding grounds, such as the canyons and seamounts, would be another big step in the right direction. With little fishing activity occurring in these areas, the canyons and seamounts are a relatively safe place for whales to live and eat, away from busier places where threats are higher.

 

Seamounts Species Spotlight: Atlantic Puffin

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Its unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post in part 1 in a series that profiles some of the incredible species that call this place home.

Atlantic Puffins – tiny 10-inch penguin lookalikes – are some of New England’s most fascinating and beloved seasonal coastal and island visitors.

These seabirds can both swim and fly, with top flying speeds clocking in at 55 miles per hour! Underwater, the birds appear to be flying, using their wings for power and their feet for direction as they dive up to 200 feet below the surface. Their speed is helpful as they search for small fish like sea lance and herring to feed on. Individuals frequently return to the surface with about 10 small fish stuck in their beaks.

Most of the fish caught by adult puffins from April to August is given to hatchlings for feeding. The birds typically keep the same mating partner each year, and produce one egg that they raise in burrows rather than nests. They like to create burrows about one to three feet in length in between craggy rocks, such as those found on Maine’s coastal islands, using only their beaks and feet. Once the couples establish a burrow, complete with a nursery and lavatory, they will share incubating and feeding duties through the mating season.

Atlantic Puffins tend to leave their mating grounds in August. For years, scientists have been stumped about exactly where these birds go to spend the winter months. But through the analysis geolocation data last summer, scientists discovered puffin winter grounds within the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area.

There has been a good deal of research done on these birds, in part because of their long lifespan. The oldest known puffin lived to be at least 34 years old; a typical lifespan is about 20 years.

Despite this longer than usual lifespan, Atlantic Puffin populations struggle with longevity, facing continued threats from human activities like overharvesting and habitat disruption. Overharvesting impacts both food sources and the Atlantic Puffin themselves. Because they are a small and easy target for hunting (outlawed in the U.S., but legal in Iceland and the Faroe Islands), and because they prey on fish species that humans also rely on, these birds are quite vulnerable to human behavior.

Atlantic Puffins in northern New England, in fact, were only recently brought back from the brink of extinction, despite having once been prolific on Maine’s islands (and still enjoying steady population levels in more northern habitats).

Protecting habitat for puffin colonies is especially important, because they return to the same areas each year for breeding and possibly for wintering. If humans don’t protect these places, the future of Atlantic Puffin populations are increasingly uncertain.

Read more about the efforts to restore this species at the Puffin Project website.

Ocean Immersion in a Land-locked Town: Creating a Mini Cashes Ledge

The quiet hum of the chiller and protein skimmer can be heard in the halls of Hanover High School in Hanover, New Hampshire, as a large 100-gallon “Educational Aquatic Ecosystem” sits near the windows of the large cafeteria in the middle of the building. The tank’s glass bears the unmistakable green tinge of a new phytoplankton bloom. On a submerged rock, a barnacle colony is happily feeding for the first time in weeks. Thanks to an enterprising senior, Hanover High School, perched on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, has become home to its own tiny marine ecosystem.

Step aside, model volcano – Alex Taylor and Hanover High School are taking science projects to the next level.

Spurred by his lifelong passion for the ocean, Alex, with support from a few teachers, the Ecosystems Management Club, and a grant from a local community organization, spearheaded the establishment of a fully functioning aquarium system that mimics the conditions of Cashes Ledge, a biological hotspot in the heart of the Gulf of Maine.

The group was able to build “an unusual learning model . . . that has become a classroom” remarks Scott Stokoe, the Sustainability Curriculum Coordinator for the school, who helped Alex set up the system over the course of a semester.

The ecosystem is now well established after several months of intense research and communication with local experts. The setup also boasts a “closed loop” system: Rather than constantly feeding the marine life and periodically cleaning its waste by hand, the closed loop system aims to represent how material and energy flows in an ecosystem, with conditions similar to Cashes Ledge.

Why Cashes Ledge?

Cashes Ledge, an area approximately 80 miles off the coast of New Hampshire, is a unique and powerful resource for researchers, educators, and tourists. Called the “Yellowstone of the North Atlantic” by renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, this massive underwater mountain range is home to some of the most iconic and unique marine species in the Atlantic.

Kelp up close! The display contains marine wildlife actually found at Cashes Ledge.
Kelp up close! The display contains marine wildlife actually found at Cashes Ledge.

The fabled Atlantic Cod can be seen swimming alongside blue and basking sharks against a backdrop of the Atlantic’s largest and deepest cold-water kelp forest. This rich biodiversity is mirrored in the Educational Aquatic Ecosystem, albeit on a much smaller scale.

While Cashes Ledge is not easily accessible for most people – especially for students who live on the New Hampshire-Vermont border – the miniature ecosystem is an easy way for the students to gain a firsthand appreciation for the unique and dynamic organisms that call Cashes Ledge home.

Alex, Scott Stokoe, and science teacher Jeannie Kornfeld hope that with improved ecological literacy that comes with studying an area that is part of New Hampshire’s history and current affairs, the project will encourage students to engage more deeply with environmental issues. For example, by studying this system in French class, students learned about the economic and historical value of cod and its impact on French culture while studying the language. By gaining exposure to this incredible educational resource, students in a wide range of classes have grown interested in what their region’s ocean has to offer.

Stokoe points to this project as an excellent example of the transdisciplinary application of ecological literacy that is called for by Environmental Studies professor David Orr. Kornfeld, the science teacher who assisted Alex with the tank, agrees, saying that the “vision is to get people using the system as part of an effort to teach sustainability across curricula.”

Already, this vision is becoming a reality. More than 200 students worked with the system in various classes this past spring; students can also learn more about it through the ecosystems management club.

Conservation Law Foundation has been advocating for many years for permanent protection of special areas like Cashes Ledge, including our current push for President Obama to designate it as a Marine National Monument.

We hope that Cashes Ledge is kept intact for generations to come, so that students and educators like the ones at Hanover High School can continue to engage with a local ecosystem and become involved and informed New England ocean lovers.

Take Action to permanently protect Cashes Ledge today.

 

Shark-Saving Legislation Proposed During Discovery’s “Shark Week”

Just in time for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, a team of United States Senators, led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), has introduced legislation seeking to eliminate U.S. involvement in the global shark fin market.

The bipartisan Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016 aims to protect important shark populations by banning the commercial trade of fins in the United States and by increasing enforcement measures to the existing finning ban. The Senators hope these actions will provide a platform from which the United States can advocate for comprehensive global measures in the future.

The move to ban domestic shark finning began when President Bill Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act in 2000, which made it illegal for United States fishermen to engage in shark finning – but left a significant loophole by not discussing fin trading specifically. Since then, eleven states and three U.S. territories – including Massachusetts –have implemented comprehensive finning bans that close this loophole.

What is Shark Finning?

Shark finning is a brutal practice that occurs when the fins of a shark are cut from the animal and kept for sale while the rest of the shark is tossed back in the water, incapacitated and left to die or be eaten by a predator.

The fins are particularly valued for medicinal purposes as well as for the key ingredient of shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy and status symbol. The price for a single bowl of soup can cost up to $100, making the global fin trade highly profitable despite being increasingly controversial.

At Risk from a Daunting Predator: Humans

All shark species, including the highly endangered scalloped hammerhead, are at risk of falling prey to shark finning. To make matters worse, recent estimates say global shark populations are decreasing at a rate of between 6.4 to 7.9 percent annually. This startling decline is largely caused by finning, overfishing, and from the animals being accidentally caught as bycatch.

Massachusetts is among the U.S. states advocating against shark finning, where there has been a heightened interest in shark research and conservation in part due to the return of great white sharks during recent years.

Groups like the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have been studying New England’s sharks for decades. The Massachusetts Shark Research Program’s shark-tagging research recently resurfaced in the news with the return of Scratchy, the Great White Shark, to Cape Cod’s shores.

Civic Interest in New England

During his tenure as a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts, Secretary John Kerry was a vocal supporter of the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, signed into law in 2011. The act gained bipartisan support and mandated that shark landings must be brought to shore with fins attached, thereby strengthening the Shark Finning Prohibition Act.

And in 2014, nine-year-old Sean Lesniak wrote to his State Representative, David M. Nangle, with a simple request: to allow him to share his passion for sharks with the Massachusetts House and tell them why they were worth saving. In doing so, Lesniak lent his young voice to a long-running conversation about why the Bay State should protect its marine resources. Gaining bipartisan support, the bill successfully banned the possession and sale of shark fins, and was signed by Governor Deval Patrick in July 2014.

Lesniak’s story is a good reminder that civic engagement and education are important conservation tools, and that when used effectively, can help ensure that shark populations are saved – and that events like Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

With the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016, the United States Senate has the opportunity to elevate global awareness of this issue and make shark conservation a more concrete reality. Contact your Senator today to ask him or her to support this legislation.