Marine Reserves are Climate Reserves – and We Need More of Them

I’m riding on a small ferry to an island off the coast of Maine when the captain suddenly slows the boat. He comes over the loudspeaker and speaks in a quiet voice. “On the left of the boat, next to the rocks is an Atlantic Puffin,” he says. Craning our necks, my fellow passengers and I look out on the sparkling blue water and there next to the seaweed covered rocks is a lone puffin bobbing in the water.

Puffins had nearly disappeared from the Gulf of Maine until restoration efforts in the late 1900s successfully restored colonies on the Maine islands. In the past, the greatest threat to puffins was hunting, but now they face a new threat: global climate change. The Gulf of Maine is warming at a faster rate than almost any other ocean ecosystem on Earth. This is bad news for puffins and the 3,000 other marine species who rely on the Gulf waters for food and habitat.

Scientists have been researching ways to slow climate change or at least mitigate its impacts. One new study shows that marine reserves allow ecosystems to adapt and be resilient to the major predicted impacts of climate change: acidification, sea-level rise, more intense storms, shifts in species distribution, and decreased productivity and oxygen availability.

Marine reserves are a type of marine protected area where all activities such as fishing, bottom trawling, fracking, and drilling are prohibited (though minimal amounts of low-impact fishing may still be allowed). Currently, only 3.5 percent of the world’s ocean has some level of protection, with just 1.6 percent fully protected. International scientists agree that by 2030 we need to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean.

According to the study, marine reserves can help combat climate change impacts in a couple of different ways.

Tackling Ocean Acidification

One of the biggest threats to the ocean is acidification. Ocean acidification occurs when excess carbon dioxide enters the water from the air. The carbon dioxide changes the water’s chemistry, making it more acidic. Marine reserves can help the ocean’s resiliency to acidification by capturing and storing carbon in protected wetlands and by creating a stronger buffer against carbon offshore.

Wetlands in particular are able to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for hundreds of years. Wetlands can also provide refuge, breeding grounds, and nursery hotspots for many types of organisms. Additionally, protected wetlands can help mitigate two other impacts of climate change – sea level rise and intensification of storms – by providing an important physical buffer between the ocean and seaside communities.

In offshore marine reserves, ocean acidification is combated by increasing fish stocks. Teleost fish (also known as bony fish, which comprise about 96 percent of all fish) produce a chemical that acts as a buffer and counteracts some of the added carbon. This is not enough to stop ocean acidification – but the more fish in the ocean, the greater the buffer. Currently, there are fewer fish in the ocean worldwide due to overfishing and human activities that hurt fish habitat and breeding grounds. Past research shows that well-managed marine reserves increase fish populations and promote habitat recovery.

Helping Species Adapt

The new study also shows how marine reserves help species adapt to climate change. One of the biggest challenges that climate change poses is that habitats are changing faster than species can adapt. Marine reserves can help this challenge by increasing gene flow and providing refuge.

Typically, marine reserves give fish and other marine life populations the opportunity to grow, which creates more gene variation within the population. A larger gene pool increases the chance of adaptations that would benefit the population. Most supporters of protected areas advocate for a network of marine reserves that connect different populations and help facilitate gene flow.

As the climate changes many organisms find themselves needing to migrate to find better conditions. Marine reserves can act as a stepping stone for species on the move due to rising water temperatures. For organisms that cannot move, like coral, marine reserves allow for possible refuge.

For the Future

Creating marine reserves requires stakeholder participation and it can be difficult to facilitate different interest groups. However, the environmental and economic benefits are huge. Marine reserves are low technology and cost effective. Positive effects from creating more well-managed marine reserves would be seen from the local to global scale.

Marine reserves are by no means the sole solution to climate change. Ultimately, as a society, we must reduce climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions. But the creation of more well-managed marine reserves can help with climate resiliency. Especially for the puffins, the lobster, and all of us in the Gulf of Maine who rely on a healthy ocean, the creation of more protected spaces is something that we must focus on – now.

New England has its own fully protected marine reserve, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – and it needs your help. Right now, it’s under attack by the Trump Administration, which is “reviewing” marine monuments and sanctuaries to gauge whether they will open them up to destructive oil and gas drilling. Take action today: Sign your name to let the administration know that our marine national monument protects our ocean treasures and must remain in place exactly as they are.

#SaveOceanTreasures: Attend the NOAA Town Hall Meeting on Sept. 15 in Providence

Momentum is building for protecting ocean habitats in New England – and your voice has never been more important. Next Tuesday, September 15, NOAA is holding a town hall meeting to hear from people like you about why Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts deserve protection as the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monuments.

If you will be in the area, we encourage you to attend! Sign up here to let us know you’ll be attending. If not, spread the word about this event to friends, family, colleagues, or others you know who may live or work near Providence, RI.

The NOAA Town Hall Meeting will be held Tuesday, Sept. 15, from 6-8 p.m. at the Providence Marriott Downtown, 1 Orms St, Providence, RI, in the Sessions/College/Canal Room. We need to show the Obama Administration that there is overwhelming public support for permanently protecting the Cashes Ledge Area.

The Administration has indicated that it will consider permanent protection of New England’s Canyons and Seamounts. But Cashes Ledge is at risk of being left out. Your presence and support is needed now more than ever!

The Cashes Ledge area provides refuge for hundreds of marine species, many of which are rare and unique, and is critical to the vibrancy of our coastal communities. Under perpetual threat from human impacts, such as climate change, industrial exploitation and fishing, Cashes Ledge is a jewel that needs full protection right now.

If you have not yet done so, please sign our petition asking the President to designate Marine National Monuments for the Cashes Ledge Area and the Canyons and Seamounts.

Thank you so much for your support in this critical time.

Take Action Now to Protect Ocean Habitat

One of the principle goals of New England Ocean Odyssey has been to reveal the magnificence of New England’s ocean and to transform the way people think about and view this truly amazing environment. One of the most extraordinary places that we have featured as part of this effort is the highly productive, diverse, and dramatically beautiful Cashes Ledge. Tragically, despite these valuable and irreplaceable characteristics, Cashes Ledge is in danger of being opened to trawls, dredges, and other destructive fishing practices pursuant of a fisheries management proposal that would eliminate its currents protections—and ultimately do more harm than good to Cashes and other fragile ocean habitat in our region.

For more than ten years Cashes Ledge has been protected against the most damaging forms of fishing, such as bottom trawling and dredging. But the New England Fishery Management Council is now considering a proposal that would remove these protections. The proposal, known as the Omnibus Habitat Amendment (OHA), includes a range of alternatives for managing ocean habitat. One alternative would eliminate all the current protected areas that now provide fish a safe haven from damaging fish trawls and other harmful gear. Another alternative would reduce the amount of protected ocean in New England by as much as 70%. Among the many harmful alternatives being considered is one, preferred by the Council, that would expose more than 70% of the currently protected Cashes Ledge area to damaging bottom fishing. The Council has made a preliminary decision to move forward with this alternative that would eliminate protection for areas where the imperiled Atlantic cod obtains refuge to feed, spawn, and avoid predators–in spite of recommendations from its own technical staff and scientists to leave Cashes fully intact!

This is not only contrary to the OHA’s habitat protection objective, but an overall bad sign for an ocean ecosystem already unable to sustain healthy populations of important species like Atlantic cod and flounder.

Now is your chance to tell the Council and NOAA that you won’t stand for this kind of mismanagement. You can submit written comments to these agencies here, as well as make a statement in person at public hearings that are currently taking place all over New England and in a few of the mid-Atlantic states. Your simple presence at these meetings would demonstrate to the Council the widespread support for keeping Cashes Ledge permanently closed to harmful fishing practices. As New England ocean-lovers, it is our responsibility to reveal to others the true beauty of our home waters, and show that New England’s ocean is a spectacular ecosystem that deserves to be protected.

Thank you for your continued support, and we hope to see you out there!

 

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.

Mountains and Forests of New England’s Ocean

New Englanders are familiar with the mountains that mark their landscape: the Green or White Mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire, the Berkshires and Holyoke ranges in Western Massachusetts. But mountain ranges also lie beneath New England’s North Atlantic waters, and are equally diverse havens for wildlife as their terrestrial counterparts.

Cashes Ledge is one of New England’s most spectacular mountains, but it happens to be lying 80 miles southeast of Portland. This submerged mountain, known as a seamount, is composed of widely spaced peaks, pinnacles, and knolls with average depths of about 100 feet and its highest peak, Ammen Rock, rises within 40 feet of the surface.

This topography is one of the contributors to Cashes’ ecological richness; the steep angle of the slopes causes an oceanographic phenomenon called internal waves. As currents bring water against the abrupt topographic “high” of the ridge, the layers of plankton in the warmer overlying waters are driven to the bottom, as frequently as 20 times a day. These down-welling plankton layers are pulses of concentrated food that sustain bottom-dwelling organisms and fuel the entire food web.

Along with the constant circulation of nutrients by internal waves, the variety of terrains at Cashes Ledge—rocky banks and granite outcroppings, peaks, and channels, cobble and boulder fields, sand-and-gravel-covered seafloor, and soft bottom areas of mud and silt in the basins—also contributes to its intense complexity of life.

Having so many different spaces for organisms to inhabit increases species diversity. The hard, rocky substrate on Ammen Rock and other pinnacles along Cashes Ledge is home to a variety of plants and animals that vary by depth along the slopes, creating identifiable shallow, intermediate, and deep water zones.

In the shallow zone, which extends from the top of each pinnacle down to a depth of approximately 130 feet, grow forests of laminarian kelp up to 30 feet tall, shifting to shotgun kelp as the depth increases. At this depth, kelp groves alternate with aggregations of sea anemones, and both encrusting and mobile invertebrates proliferate in the profuse protection of the kelp.

In the intermediate zone, suspension-feeding invertebrates begin to predominate, and continue to the bottom of the rock slope at approximately 200-230 feet. As the slope begins to level off between 230-250 feet, the muddy bottom of the deep zone supports a biogenic habitat structure for tube worms, mud anemones, and northern shrimp.

The teeming diversity of seamount ecosystems makes them tempting to deep-sea fishing trawlers, which would drag weighted nets across the mountainous terrain in order to catch the schools of fish which congregate there to breed, lay their eggs, and grow to maturity among the sheltering crags. The rocky cobble and gravel substrates of Cashes Ledge are critical nurseries for juvenile Atlantic cod; its sandy and algal dominated areas serve as habitat for pollock eggs, larvae, and young, and its deep muddy areas are essential habitat for white hake.

The kelp forest that is a signature of Cashes Ledge is quite susceptible to human-induced harm. If stripped by mobile fishing gear or shredded by repeated impact from lines, hooks, traps, or other human influences, the tall kelp forests that grow on the Cashes Ledge pinnacles would take many years to re-achieve their former stature. The diverse ecosystem that depends upon these kelp forests could be completely altered, if not eliminated, during that period of regrowth.

Bottom trawling to catch a few groundfish is “like clear cutting a forest to catch a squirrel,” says New England Ocean Odyssey partner and renowned marine wildlife photographer Brian Skerry, who has witnessed bottom-trawled environments firsthand on his dives.

It is such a unique, valuable, and interdependent ecosystem, Cashes Ledge requires permanent protection from human impingement. As a large area comprising many different types of habitat, Cashes Ledge has much to contribute toward keeping our oceans healthy.

Help keep Cashes Ledge permanently protected by joining our petition today!

Laura Marjorie Miller writes about travel, ocean conservation, Yoga, magic, myth, fairy tales, photography, and other soulful subjects. She is a regular columnist at elephantjournal, a writer at UMass Amherst, and a travel correspondent for the Boston Globe. Her writing has appeared in Parabola and she has features forthcoming in Yankee Magazine and Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck.

New England’s Dive Community Supports Protecting Cashes Ledge!

Last weekend, we joined the Boston Sea Rovers at their annual show in Danvers, MA, to talk with divers and other ocean enthusiasts about Cashes Ledge, a Gulf of Maine ecological treasure. We always have a great time at Sea Rovers, and this year was no exception. Countless divers stopped by our booth to learn more about Cashes Ledge, which is now at immediate risk of being opened to destructive bottom trawling, and hundreds of people signed on to our petition asking NOAA to protect the full area around the ledge. We also hosted a presentation with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, Boston University scientist Les Kaufman, and CLF Director of Ocean Conservation Priscilla Brooks.

Their discussion of the incredible value of this unique habitat—and what can be done to ensure its permanent protection—drew over 200 people to a packed room, including the legendary ocean advocate Sylvia Earle. Earle expressed disbelief that anyone would consider opening such incredible habitat to trawling, and she even offered to make Cashes Ledge a Hope Spot in her Mission Blue campaign. The enthusiasm from the Sea Rovers crowd blew us away, and we’re thrilled to have the support of the active and conservation-minded dive community as we seek to protect one of the most incredible marine habitats in New England.

That support is needed now more than ever. In recognition of the remarkable value of the habitat on and around Cashes Ledge, the New England Fishery Management Council closed this area to damaging bottom trawling and scallop dredging nearly 15 years ago. This protected status allowed previously trawled habitat areas to recover and has supported the health of juvenile and spawning fish. It has also allowed Cashes Ledge to serve as an underwater laboratory for numerous marine scientists, providing an opportunity to study ecosystem functioning and biodiversity in a rare environment that is isolated from the polluted waters of coastal habitats and less impacted by commercial fishing.

But now, near the end of an eight-year process to develop a comprehensive habitat plan for New England’s fisheries, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to eliminate protection for nearly three quarters of the Cashes Ledge protected area (the cross-hatched areas in the map below).

The NEFMC's current proposal would eliminate protection for nearly three quarters of the current protected area around Cashes Ledge.

Cashes Ledge has been protected from bottom trawling for almost 15 years, but is now at immediate risk of being opened to destructive bottom trawling. Cashes Ledge deserves protection. Please sign our petition asking NOAA to maintain protection for the entire Cashes Ledge area.

 

Stop the Empty Oceans Act!

Take action for New England’s oceans and tell Congress to reject The Empty Oceans Act!

U.S. Representative Doc Hastings, the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, has drafted a bill to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the main Federal law that protects our ocean and coasts from overfishing. This proposed legislation is so bad that it’s been deemed the “Empty Oceans Act.”

The “Empty Oceans Act” threatens to bring us back to the disastrous overfishing policies of the past. If enacted into law it would eliminate important environmental protections and allow an unsustainable rate of fishing—even on the most vulnerable species.

Tell Congress not to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act. New England should be moving forward with modern science-based fisheries management, not going back to years of perpetual overfishing!

Simply put, the Hastings draft ignores the state of New England’s fisheries and the need to move modern fishery management forward. Instead of recognizing the success of the MSA over time and recent improvements to the law to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish populations, the Hastings draft bill drags fisheries management back into the dark ages with a handful of attention grabbing measures which, if enacted, would take modern fisheries management to a permanent state of overfishing.

Hastings’ Empty Oceans Act proposes to:

  • Allow overfishing to continue by delaying the beginning of rebuilding measures for as long as seven years. Once rebuilding measures for one targeted species finally starts they could extend for decades with no meaningful deadline for completion.
  • Allow fishery management councils to outright ignore recommendations from their own science and statistical committees in setting catch limits.
  • Exempt fisheries management from meaningful environmental review by undercutting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its provisions for environmental impact review of federal management as well as the possibility for the involvement of citizens and other stakeholder groups.
  • Allow commercially driven fishery management councils to have control over the recovery of threatened and endangered ocean wildlife such as sea turtles.
  • Undercut other bedrock conservation laws such as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, as well as prohibit taxpayer-funded fisheries data from being used for other purposes, such as New England’s regional ocean planning effort that has been underway for several years.

 

Help CLF halt this disastrous scheme to take healthy fish populations and the environment out of fisheries management!

 

It Takes a Village: Life on the Bottom at Cashes Ledge

If you’re reading this post, you are probably a vertebrate. Those of us with spines and bones may find it hard to empathize with invertebrates (animals without spines), with their radically alien ways of being, frequent radial symmetry and general facelessness! But in many ways, invertebrates are the heart of ocean ecosystems, so for those of us interested in the fascinating universe of the sea it is important to understand them. And there are few better places to study invertebrate communities than one unique and now threatened special area in the Gulf of Maine.

Off the New England coast, about 80 miles due east from Cape Ann, lies Cashes Ledge: an undersea mountain range that is one of the most dynamic, and ecologically productive areas in the entire North Atlantic. Although only the most intrepid divers have seen Cashes Ledge with their own eyes, you can imagine the undersea terrain by thinking of mountains that you already know: as a multifaceted terrain of rocky peaks, banks, and channels, with a valley floor of mud, gravel, sand, boulders, and rock. This terrain supports a vibrant bottom-dwelling community of bright orange, red, and yellow sponges, sea stars, brittle and feather stars, sea squirts, sea pens, anemones, tube worms, northern shrimp, horse mussels, and sea mosses, technically known as “bryozoans.”

This colorful community is one of Cashes Ledge’s treasures, and one that is ever more in peril.

Invertebrates of Cashes Ledge. Photo by Jon Witman.
Invertebrates of Cashes Ledge. Photo by Jon Witman.

 

The variety of terrain at Cashes Ledge makes it an ideal living laboratory for studying the structure of the vibrant communities that grow along its slopes and hills. The enhanced water flow created by the topographic “ramp” of the Ledge encourages a high growth rate of invertebrates, both mobile and encrusted to their home rocks—varieties of sponges that are as yet uncatalogued, including a rare species of blue sponge that has only ever been sighted in the rock wall communities of Cashes Ledge.

Unique communities form at each depth, creating a complex and rich diversity of species. Metridum anemones gather at the tops of the ridges, sheltered by waving groves of laminarian kelp. Large urticina anemones and orange sea stars flourish in the mid-depth areas, as well as brachiopods, crinoids, ascidians, and yellow mounding sponges the size of footballs. The soft bottom is home to tube worms, pink northern shrimp, and thickets of mud anemones. Ammen Rock, the highest peak in the Cashes Ledge range, hosts large, sensitive beds of horse mussels: a “foundation species” because they provide habitat and refuge for other species.

Phakelia sponge and brittle stars. Photo by Jon Witman.
Phakelia sponge and brittle stars. Photo by Jon Witman.

The biological richness which makes Cashes Ledge so compelling for scientists to study has also drawn the attention of industrial fishing interests, which are currently lobbying to remove long-standing protections for Cashes Ledge.  Allowing bottom trawling at Cashes Ledge would rapidly deplete the remaining populations of large cod and other groundfish who are the most prolific spawners. The kelp forests, slopes and rocky terrain serve as excellent habitat and the best chance for restoring Gulf of Maine cod populations, which are now at historically low numbers.

Cod and anemones. Photo by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Cod and invertebrates. Photo by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

New bottom trawling would be bad news for bottom-dwelling sea life at Cashes Ledge, because a number of the invertebrate species that grow there are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance. These invertebrates move slowly (if at all), and often have specialized reproductive cycles. If their habitat is harmed and breeding adults removed, species could take many years to recover, even longer for rarer species. Scientific estimates predict that the large, solitary sea anemone Urticina crassicornis would take 268 years to return to the community if it were removed by fishing gear.

Trawling Cashes Ledge could deplete or endanger many species that we do not yet fully know about. Cashes Ledge should be left intact as a resource for scientists, as well as a replenishment zone whose presence will sustain a recovering ocean ecosystem that will be of benefit to fishermen in the future. Trawling at Cashes Ledge is a short-term economic gamble that would cause long-term economic and environmental damage.

Cashes Ledge is a “wild offshore place that helps us understand how marine ecosystems tick,” says marine ecologist Jon Witman, who has been studying it for 35 years. “Cashes Ledge provides an opportunity to understand why biodiversity matters in an ecological sense. Unfortunately,” he continues, “we are losing marine biodiversity in the world’s oceans faster than we can study it.”

As an offshore haven far from the polluted waters of coastal habitats, Cashes Ledge warrants full and permanent protection to ensure that its intricately connected habitats and unique ecosystem can continue to serve as a reservoir of diverse ocean wildlife, a replenishment zone for sustainable fish stocks, and an open ocean laboratory for scientific research. Please add your voice to those calling for the protection of Cashes Ledge.

Laura Marjorie Miller writes about travel, ocean conservation, Yoga, magic, myth, fairy tales, photography, and other soulful subjects. She is a regular columnist at elephantjournal, a writer at UMass Amherst, and a travel correspondent for the Boston Globe. Her writing has appeared in Parabola and she has features forthcoming in Yankee Magazine and Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck.

Feature image credit: Josh Cummings