New England Canyons and Seamounts are the Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures

New England is a region full of remarkable marine landscapes. An area like Cashes Ledge speaks to the immense beauty and diversity found in our local ocean, but it is not the only one.

Approximately 150 miles off the coast of southern New England, where the continental shelf drops off into the ocean abyss, liesa chain of undersea canyons and nearby seamounts that are home to an incredible richness of marine life. The canyons plunge thousands of feet deep, some deeper than the Grand Canyon, and the seamounts rise as high as 7,000 feet above the seafloor, higher than any mountain east of the Rockies.

Much like Cashes Ledge, these habitats give rise to an elaborate underwater world of marine species. Communities of brilliant cold-water corals line the walls of the canyons and seamounts supporting a  diverse deep-sea ecosystem and providing refuge for abundant fish and invertebrate species. Nearly 1,000 species have been identified in the New England Canyon and Seamount region, and researchers are discovering more with every expedition.

The nutrient rich cold water brings an abundance of plankton, squid, and forage fish, such as mackerel, This in turn attracts schools of tuna, sharks, seabirds, and marine mammals, such as endangered sperm whales and North Atlantic right whales – both rare, iconic species of the region.

The depth and ruggedness of the region have naturally protected the New England Canyons and Seamounts from human disturbance thus far, but this may not always be the case. This region is particularly vulnerable to fishing and offshore development. One sweep of a bottom trawl would have devastating effects for the fragile deep-sea community, and future any development in the region, such as drilling or mining, would pose great risk to marine mammals and fish.

Scientists have also suggested that deep-sea coral communities are among the most vulnerable to ocean warming and ocean acidification. Maintaining the health of the canyons and seamounts will be imperative in the fight against climate change.

The New England Canyons and Seamounts region is another special place that deserves protection.


Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

On National Endangered Species Day, Lingering Right Whales Are At Increased Risk

Today is National Endangered Species Day. Each year on the third Friday of May, National Endangered Species Day celebrates learning about our endangered and threatened species and how we can help protect them.

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law on December 28, 1973 and is administered by NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the Endangered Species Act protects about 2,215 species; NOAA Fisheries has jurisdiction over 125 endangered and threatened marine species.

New England is home to a number of endangered species such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, who’s estimated global population is only about 522 individuals.  Between December and April each year, the whales visit Cape Cod Bay to feed on plentiful plankton.

The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, MA monitors and documents the North Atlantic Right Whale population each winter via aerial surveys. This year, researchers have noticed the whales lingering in the area rather than moving offshore to deeper waters as expected at the end of April. The persistence of the whales creates a potentially dangerous – and deadly – situation for this endangered species, as well as people on the water.

Boat traffic in Cape Cod Bay is now increasing with the commercial fishing season starting on May 1 and warmer weather marking the beginning of the recreational boating season. With more boats on the water, the risk of striking a whale greatly increases. Also, as more lobstermen head out on the water, an increase in the number of traps poses a greater risk of entanglement.

Unfortunately, one whale identified as female 3999 by CCS researchers was struck by a boat last week. According to Scott Landry, the director of the CCS Marine Animal Entanglement Response team, the young whale appears to be feeding normally, but the wound is large and infection is a major concern.

The persisting right whales pose a difficult situation for managers because there is little that can be done to remedy the situation except hope that accidents do not occur. Federal and state law already prohibits boaters and fishermen, including their gear, from approaching within 500 yards of a right whale. Also, those on the water are urged to reduce speed to less than 10 knots when traveling through a recent sighting area.

While increased sightings of an endangered species is usually a cause for celebration, hopefully, the right whales will soon move offshore, and the summer fishing and boating season can continue without further incident.

Great White Sharks Making Waves

For a long while it seemed like our brutally cold, record-setting snowy winter would never end. But now, the warmer days are becoming more frequent, the leaves are (slowly) returning to the trees, and rather than trekking through feet of snow, we can lay in the warmth of the sun.

The summer season is nearly upon us, and that means great white shark season is fast approaching! Just south of our New England waters, news of a great white shark made waves over the weekend.

Mary Lee, a 16-foot long, 3,500 pound female, surfaced off the New Jersey shore before heading back out to deeper waters, and as of this morning, she’s northbound, surfacing near Long Island!

The Ocearch Global Shark Tracker tracks the movements of great white sharks, and you can follow along using the web or mobile tool. When the dorsal fin of a tagged shark breaks the surface, a signal is transmitted and a “ping” is registered that gives the approximate location of the shark.

Ocearch researchers tagged Mary Lee off of Cape Cod back in September 2012. Since then, she has travelled 19,658.738 miles!

According to the Global Shark Tracker, Genie, another female great white shark, pinged in the New England canyons area at the end of April.

Make sure to follow the fun and stay up to date on shark movements all summer long!


Image via NOAA Sanctuaries.

As 2015 Fishing Season Kicks Off, a Still Uncertain Future for Cod Remains

The 2015 fishing season begins today, May 1, and stricter – but necessary – quotas on Gulf of Maine cod will take effect.

Last year, scientists determined that the population of spawning cod had plummeted to historic lows (3 to 4 percent of the target level). In response, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to reduce the 2015 total allowable catch (TAC) of Gulf of Maine cod from 1,550 to 386 metric tons – a 75% reduction from the 2014 fishing year TAC. Possession of recreational-caught Gulf of Maine cod will also be entirely prohibited. These new measures, as well as changes to Gulf of Maine closed areas and catch limits for winter founder and haddock are implemented through Framework 53 Adjustment to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan.

NOAA approved Framework 53 last week with the expectation that catch limits may be adjusted after the Gulf of Maine cod stock assessment scheduled for September 2015. For now, the new Gulf of Maine cod catch limits replace the emergency regulations imposed by NOAA last fall.

Many Gulf of Maine commercial fishermen who harvest groundfish are concerned about the new limits knowing that they will face a difficult fishing year. As AP reporter Patrick Whittle describes, cod are a “choke species.” Catching other groundfish such has haddock or pollock without catching cod poses a near-impossible challenge for fishermen, and the limits on cod will likely affect these other fisheries and their respective markets.

The new measures, though strict, are more than needed for the future of New England’s iconic species. In fact, they continue to represent a high risk management approach. Scientists indicated that the total allowable catch for Gulf of Maine cod should be limited to 200 metric tons – almost 50% below the new quota limits. They also warned that even such low limits may still be insufficient to allow coastal cod populations to recover. Cod is in crisis, driven by historic overfishing and compounded by new ecological changes associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

Low cod catches are necessary, but they are not enough. In addition to tight catch regulations, protecting the cod’s essential marine habitat, such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area, will be vital to the cod’s recovery, as well as the health of other species. To thrive, fish need areas where they can spawn, feed, grow, and find shelter without the threat and disturbance of fishing and fishing gear impacts.

Cod fishing was America’s first colonial industry. Will it also follow the path of the Atlantic halibut fishery into commercial oblivion? Now, 400 years later, there is little doubt that unless cod catches are reduced to as close to zero as possible, a cod fishery will move out of the region’s reach for decades, if not more.

Cod’s future in New England, after decades of overfishing and risky management, is sadly now anyone’s guess.

Puffin Project Coming to the New England Aquarium

Director of National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin Steve Kress and award-winning journalist/photographer Derrick Jackson will join the New England Aquarium Lecture Series Tuesday, May 5 to discuss their new book, Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.

Project Puffin is the success story of how puffins were restored to their historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine. In the early 1970s, young puffins from Newfoundland were transplanted to Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine, where hunters had previously wiped out the local population. Over the years, the number of puffins slowly increased, and now about 1,000 pairs nest on the Maine islands. Kress and volunteers regularly monitor the young puffins and their nesting success.

Kress and his team now struggle with new challenges, as when warming waters in the Gulf of Maine two years ago affected the amount of forage fish that adult puffins could bring back to the nest. Several nestlings starved and the nesting success for puffins plummeted. Kress is now studying how improvements to the management of fishing on forage species, especially for herring, might help puffins and other seabirds survive disruptions to the ocean food web.

You can read an excerpt from Kress and Jackson’s new book in the recent Boston Globe article, “What it takes to restore the puffin to Maine’s islands,” and be sure to attend the lecture next week to learn more.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Andreas Trepte 

A Warning From The Distant Past About Current Ocean Acidification

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have made a disturbing discovery about the biggest mass extinction in Earth’s history and the current reality of ocean acidification.

The Great Dying, or the P-T extinction, marked the transition from the Permian to the Triassic period 252 million years ago. The largest of five mass extinctions, the Great Dying killed off 93-97% of all marine species. Both marine and terrestrial species were already under considerable stress during the Permian period due to continual super-volcano eruptions causing high global temperatures and low oxygen levels.

Recent chemical analysis of ancient rocks from the United Arab Emirates desert, however, also shows that the oceans suddenly became more acidic during this time period. Scientists have concluded that ocean acidification, also the result of continual super-volcano eruptions, was the final nail for the majority of marine species in the Permian period.

Most worrisome is that researchers say the rate of carbon dioxide release from the volcanoes is comparable to the current level of human produced carbon dioxide emissions.  Of course, the Great Dying occurred on a much larger timescale (one that is even difficult to imagine), but we should take this new information as a serious warning.

The impacts of ocean acidification can already be seen throughout New England ocean ecosystems. For example, in more acidic ocean waters, shellfish such as mussels and oysters cannot form their shells, making them more vulnerable to predation and other environmental stressors.

Aware of ocean acidification’s increasing threat to our marine life and the coastal communities and economies that depend on it, New England state legislatures are hoping to form a multistate pact to fight ocean acidification along the east coast. Maine’s ocean acidification panel has already produced its final report and was shocked by how little we actually know about ocean acidification and its impacts. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire legislatures are working on bills to follow suit.

According to Hauke Kite-Powell, a Woods Hole research specialist, state officials can do little about the atmospheric carbon dioxide contributing to ocean acidification, but can start with better regulating nutrient flow into our coastal waters.

Ocean acidification is not an easy problem to fix, nor will it disappear any time soon, but at least we are taking initial steps to address this major threat to our oceans and marine life.

Right Whale Mother and Calf Pair Sighted

On April 1, a Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) aerial survey group observed the first right whale mother and calf pair of the Northeast season.

The mother was identified as Clover (right whale #1611) and was seen with her fourth calf.

Right whales migrate to New England waters during the spring and summer months to feed and nurse. The current North Atlantic population is estimated to be about 500 individuals.

Photo credit: Leah Crowe, NEFSC/NOAA

Protect the Porbeagle

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) is considering two petitions to list porbeagle sharks as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. NMFS originally rejected the petitions in 2010, but federal regulators are now reviewing the status of the species pursuant to a recent court order.

Reaching up to 11.5 feet in length, porbeagle sharks (Lamna nasus), also known as blue dogs, can be recognized by their stout dark gray bodies, pointed snouts, and large black eyes. They are found globally swimming over continental shelves and deep ocean basins, but preferring cold and temperate waters, this species is most often found in the North Atlantic Ocean. Not much is known about their reproductive cycles, but the Gulf of Maine is thought to be a favorite mating ground.

Commercial fisheries for porbeagle sharks exist in other areas of the world, but in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank region, porbeagles are often victims of bycatch. It’s for this reason that Northwest Atlantic populations of porbeagle sharks are declining and why their status is under review.

Here’s just one more, rather poignant, incentive to protect essential marine habitat in New England like Cashes Ledge.


Image via Wikimedia Commons.