Fish Friday: Silver Hake – A Scrumptious and Sustainable Cod Substitute

You’ve heard a lot about cod lately. If you’re a fish-eating fan, you’ve probably eaten your fair SilverHakeshare, too. But as New England stocks have been continuously overfished since the 1980s and 1990s, isn’t it time we considered some delicious cod substitutes? How about another scrumptious whitefish (and today’s fishy feature), the silver hake?!

Hungry Hungry Hake

Silver hake (Merluccius bilinearies­), also known as Atlantic whiting, are medium-sized fish that may grow to be 5 lbs and upwards of 28” long. As nocturnal and semi-pelagic predators, they spend their days resting on the sandy, pebble ocean floor during the day and move up the water column to feed from around dusk to midnight.

Atlantic whiting are vital to the Gulf of Maine (GOM) ecosystem because they serve as both predator and prey species. Silver hake are so abundant and such voracious predators that they help to regulate prey populations. They are a piscivorous species, meaning they feed on other fish including young herring, mackerel, menhaden, alewives, and sand lance, in addition to crustaceans and squids. But whiting don’t just eat a ton – they also get eaten a ton! Nearly all predators in the Gulf of Maine consume whiting, especially cod, tuna, and other silver hake (so piscivorous…and cannibalistic!). 

Stable Stocks

In the Northwest Atlantic, silver hake are managed as two stocks – one to the north (the Gulf of Maine and Northern Georges Bank) and one to the south (Southern Georges Bank all the way to Cape Hatteras). In the summer months, adult fish migrate to shallow waters in the Northwest Atlantic to spawn. Both stocks can be found in the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to Grand Manan Island, in the southern and southeastern portions of Georges Bank, and just south of Martha’s Vineyard.

Thanks to monitoring by NOAA’s New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, there is sufficient data to accurately assess Atlantic whiting stocks. And good news – both the northern and southern populations are stable with no evidence of overfishing!

NEFMC manages the Atlantic whiting stocks under the New England Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP). In 2000, Amendment 12 to the FMP designated silver hake as “small-mesh multispecies.” The Amendment also established retention limits, defined “overfishing” for the species, identified critical habitat, and set fishing gear requirements. In 2013, Amendment 19 to the FMP established annual catch limits and put accountability measures in place.

Fishing requirements for “small-mesh” species are put in place to reduce bycatch of vulnerable populations, such as cod. In 2002, fishermen and scientists began experimenting with modified otter trawls, trying to determine the best way to target silver hake without impacting the benthic marine environment or other fish populations. They began using sweepless nets, trawl nets without groundgear components. These nets reduced bycatch of lobster and other benthic species to just 2%! Researchers then began testing the Nordmore grate, which prevent larger finfish (yes, cod) from being caught, while letting smaller fish (whiting) pass into the trawl nets. These designs were incredibly successful and have been adopted into portions of the management plan.

The GOM whiting fishery is open from July 1 to November 30 each year, and, if fishermen use sweepless trawl nets and Nordmore grates, they may harvest from areas closed to other fishing types. So why are New England fishermen ignoring silver hake and still overfishing cod?

A Scrumptious and Sustainable Substitute

For decades, only a handful of fish species, like cod and salmon, have ruled our plates and menus. The high demand for such prominent species has put many stocks at severe risk of overfishing and driven some to near depletion.

Meanwhile, perfectly edible (nay, delicious!) species, such as silver hake and dogfish, are not at risk of overfishing – in fact, they’re relatively ignored.

Historically undervalued and underappreciated, silver hake has long been considered a “bycatch” species, deemed unworthy of human consumption.

In 2013, the average boat price for Atlantic cod was $2.10/lb, while silver hake went for only $0.64/lb. Why the discrepancy? A total lack of U.S. consumer awareness.

Low demand means that Maine fishermen can’t afford to target underutilized species. In 2014, only 16% of the potential GOM silver hake harvest was taken. Meanwhile, other GOM stocks are struggling to maintain viable populations.

To address this imbalance, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) began Out of the Blue, a consumer awareness campaign that brings together restaurant, retail, and institutional partners to promote the consumption of five GOM underappreciated species: Acadian redfish, Atlantic mackerel, cape shark (dogfish), whiting, and Atlantic pollock. As part of the campaign, GMRI and local restaurant partners run a Seafood Dining Series to bring these species to New Englanders’ plates. Have you tried them yet?!

Red’s Best, a New England seafood network, also recently launched an initiative to improve seafood sustainability and traceability in the region. Red’s ensures that consumers are able to trace their purchase through transportation, processing, and distribution, and provides fishermen with incentive to fish underloved species.

Consumers – it’s our turn. Let’s help the fishermen help the New England cod stocks by switching to a more sustainable alternative. How good does whiting with garlic and lemon sound? We want whiting!

Bonus: check out more drool-worthy Out of the Blue recipes and helpful cooking tips!

Fish Friday: The Atlantic Wolffish – Antifreeze Included

It’s FRIDAY! And you know what that means – time for another fishy feature. This week, we’re talking about a deep ocean predator, the Atlantic Wolffish. AtlanticWolffish

What Big Teeth You Have!

It’s clear where the wolffish gets its name. Those canines kind of remind you of…an actual wolf, right? But those visible chompers aren’t even the wolffish’s most useful dental feature; they use three sets of crushing teeth on the roofs of their mouths to grind down their hard-shelled prey – so hard that their teeth fall out every year after spawning and are replaced by a new set! Wolf AtlanticWolffish

Which one’s the wolf, and which one’s the wolffish? Images via National Park Service (left) and Jonathan Bird (right).

Atlantic wolffish are voracious predators, feeding on mollusks, crustaceans, and echinoderms (think urchins and sea stars). So voracious, in fact, that they serve as keystone species in North Atlantic food webs because they help limit populations of sea urchins and green crabs.

Without the wolffish around, urchin and green crab populations could explode, which would have serious negative impacts on the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

Unique Biology

Can you imagine swimming in 30º to 50ºF (-1.2º to 10.2 ºC) water? That’s cold. The Atlantic wolffish prefers depths of 250 to 400 ft (80 to 120 m), so they live in water that frigid. How do they do it? No, they don’t wear wetsuits; they have something even better – concentrations of an antifreeze compound in their blood! And that’s not the only thing that makes these crazy creatures so unique. Unlike most fish species, which “broadcast spawn” (females release thousands of eggs into the water, and males compete to fertilize them externally), Atlantic wolffish pair up and fertilize the female’s eggs internally (much in the same way mammals mate). The female incubates the eggs for four to nine months (depending on the water temperature) before laying them in large clusters, which the male then aggressively protects for about four months until they hatch. AtlanticWolffishPair

Image via Jonathan Bird.

Greenland sharks, Atlantic cod, haddock, gray seals, and even spotted wolffish prey on pelagic Atlantic wolffish larvae. And occasionally, the larvae may resort to eating each other . . . not the healthiest sibling relationships. Those that survive to be early juveniles transition to benthic habitats, where they prefer complex substrates such as rocky outcrops and kelp beds. They can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 m), weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kg), and live to be up to twenty years old. Wolffish are slow-growing and don’t reach sexual maturity until about age six, which can make them susceptible to fishing pressure, as stocks recover slowly.

Populations in Peril

Since the 1980s, populations of this deep sea creature have been consistently dropping, and average fish size has decreased by 50%. It’s not like there’s a commercial wolffish fishery – so what’s happening?

The biggest threat to Atlantic wolffish is otter trawling. Wolffish are caught as bycatch, indiscriminately snagged by enormous nets intended for commercially harvested species. To add insult to injury, these nets scrape along the seafloor, crushing fragile corals, disturbing rocky outcrops and kelp beds, and re-suspending bottom sediments that damage the fish’s gills and potentially release settled toxic heavy metals.

Atlantic wolffish were historically found from the Gulf of Maine all the way down to New Jersey. However, after decades of habitat destruction, there are only three populations remaining: the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and the Great South Channel (a passage between Nantucket and Georges Bank). To address population decline, NOAA identified the Atlantic wolffish as “Species of Concern” in 2004 and manages the species under Amendment 16 to the Northeast Fisheries Management Plan. But is that enough?

The fact that current population estimates don’t exist is a huge cause for concern. Direct studies on stock structure are a gaping piece of the puzzle in understanding and managing Atlantic wolffish populations. We know they were declining dramatically until 2009, the last year for which data is available. We need to know more.

Canada has protected their stocks through the country’s Species at Risk Act, but the U.S. has yet to follow suit. In 2009, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied CLF’s petition for the Atlantic wolffish to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. What are we waiting for? Let’s get the conversation started about this crazy, rare, toothy, weird, unique deep sea dweller. We want to protect the Atlantic wolffish!

Fish Friday: The Basking Shark, a Modern Marine Mystery

T.G.I.F.F. – thank goodness it’s Fish Friday! This week, we’re diving in with an elusive gentle giant, the Basking SharkBasking Shark

Sharks have been ruling the media lately. From Great White sightings off of Cape Cod to mysterious appearances in wooded backyards to the recent string of encounters along the coast of North Carolina, it seems that sharks have been everywhere, just in time for the annual explosion of shark media – the always entertaining, awe-inspiring, and extraordinarily sensationalist Discovery Channel Shark Week.

This week, sharks, a diverse and ecologically vital clade, have been labeled as “ninjas,” “monsters,” and “serial killers” – kind of aggressive descriptions, right? While some species do serve as apex predators, maintaining delicate ecosystems from the top of the food web, it’s important to remember that some sharks, such as this week’s feature, also maintain ecological balance by feeding at the base of the food web. Basking sharks aren’t interested in seals or tuna. They’ve got much smaller prey on their menu—tiny fish, fish eggs, and zooplankton.

It may be difficult to believe that a creature often mistaken for a Great White is actually a filter feeder. These gentle giants are estimated to grow up to 12 meters (exceeding 30 feet), but they survive on itty bitty prey consumed in massive quantities. Named for their tendency to “bask” on the surface of the water, basking sharks swim open-mouthed, passively feeding as their gill rakers act as sieves, preventing prey from passing through their gill slits.

GillSlits

Disappearing Act

Basking sharks are still a bit of a mystery to scientists. We know they roam the cooler waters of the Northern Atlantic and Pacific during the summer months, but for decades, the world’s second largest fish disappeared every winter.

In 2009, Gregory Skomal from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and colleagues discovered that, during winter months, New England basking sharks travel south at depths between 200 and 1,000 meters (600 and 3,000 feet). While some tagged sharks stopped in Florida, others traveled as far south as the Caribbean Sea, or even the mouth of the Amazon River! The migration has Skomal questioning previous beliefs about basking shark population structure: “What were thought to be regional stocks may in fact belong to a single, oceanwide population.”

Why do the sharks make this annual trek? Skomal suggests that they follow plankton to warmer waters in the winter months. “But why do they move all the way to Brazil?” Skomal asks. “There is plenty of food for them in northern Florida.” One possibility is that they migrate south to find nursery grounds. “We still have no idea where they give birth,” says Skomal.

Endangered Mammoth Migrators

While we still have a lot to learn about basking sharks, we do know that their populations are dwindling. In 2000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the North Pacific and Northeast Atlantic populations as endangered and the species itself as vulnerable.

The main reason for population decline is fishery overexploitation. For centuries, basking sharks were caught for their liver oil (to be used for lighting and industry), their skin (to be used as leather), their flesh (for food and fishmeal), and their fins (which are highly valuable in international trade, especially in East Asia). The basking shark’s exceptionally slow recovery rate – females are believed to sexually mature between 16 and 20 years old – makes them extremely vulnerable to overfishing.

Today, almost all basking shark fisheries around the world are closed. The only significant trade is in bycatch from New Zealand blue grenadier fisheries. Basking sharks are protected by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, the European Union, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and numerous national governments, including the United States federal government.

You can help!

Basking sharks are a common sight in our waters. Dr. Jon Witman from Brown University has spotted the sharks at Cashes Ledge, and there have already been reports this year of sightings off the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine.

Also, the New England Basking Shark and Ocean Sunfish Project is working to better understand the biology and ecology of these mammoth migrators, and they need help from citizen scientists like you! If you spot one of these gentle giants, be sure to report your sighting. The more data collected, the more we can learn and help protect!

And don’t worry, this rounded fin means you’re good.

BaskingSharkFin
Basking shark off the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Image via Antony Stanely.

 

 

 

 

This pointier one means you might want to call in for backup . . .
WhiteSharkFin
A white shark in Salt Pont, Naushon Island, MA. Image via MA Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Sharks are here! Just in time to celebrate Shark Week

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is well-timed this year: New England’s first great white shark sighting of 2015 happened last week!

Slightly earlier than projected, the great white made its appearance on June 22 off the coast of Cape Cod.

White Shark Skomal Branded

Shark experts are predicting more sightings and taggings this year than last season. Great white sightings have been increasing for years, which most likely results from a rise in the gray seal population (which has rebounded in the decades after the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was passed).

Aside from great whites, New Englanders have also reported a number of basking shark sightings within the last few weeks. Though much less fear-provoking than a great white (basking sharks are filter feeders and lack the iconic sharp teeth of a great white), these shark sightings have stirred up conversation and excitement along the coast.

Basking Sharks, approximately 18 miles off Chatham, MACoinciding with the 40th anniversary of the movie “Jaws,” this year’s spotlight on sharks is a great opportunity to learn about the many species of sharks in our oceans, and the role they play in keeping ecosystems balanced.

Great white sharks are a threatened species, so more sightings are a good thing – they prey off of mostly dead or injured seals, which encourages a strong seal population.

While they are ominous creatures, most shark attacks are a result of  confusion or mistaken identity and are not actually an”attack” at all; sharks typically bite humans only by accident. Shark attacks are also incredibly rare. While humans kill almost 100 million sharks each year, it’s estimated that sharks kill only 5 or so humans worldwide annually.

Protecting our oceans means protecting the wildlife and precious ecosystems – including the many species of sharks – that call New England’s oceans home. The rise in popularity of Shark Week over the last few years seems to be resulting in an almost celebratory attitude toward sharks – and though the fear of shark attacks doesn’t appear to be dwindling any time soon, we’re excited that sharks are having their moment.

Happy Shark Week!

 

Fish Friday: SOS! Save Our (Atlantic) Salmon!

Welcome to our second installation of Fish Friday (on a Thursday)! Last week, we focused on the Atlantic sturgeon, a species listed as endangered or threatened throughout the mid-Atlantic – it’s no surprise these fish are off the menu. But what about Atlantic salmon, the most-consumed species of salmon (the second most-consumed type of seafood) in the U.S.?

In 2013, Americans ate 2.7 pounds of salmon per person, second only to shrimp. As such a prominent American (and international) menu staple, wild Atlantic salmon populations must be flourishing, right? Wrong – commercial Atlantic salmon fisheries in the U.S. have been closed since 1948, and most recreational fisheries were shut down decades ago. Global stocks have been declining since the early 1800’s. So what’s going on? And what have you been eating?

The Fish

Atlantic salmon is the only salmon species native to the East Coast of the United States. Like Atlantic sturgeon, Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in freshwater, spend a majority of their lives in salt water, and return to freshwater to spawn. The life cycle of Atlantic salmon is fairly complex, as the salmon mature through multiple life stages during their first 1-2 years before they migrate to the open ocean.

In late autumn, female salmon bury their eggs along freshwater stream bottoms. Come March or April, the eggs hatch into alevin, which mature into fry after about 3-6 weeks, and then quickly become parr. As parr grow, they become territorial and move to areas with larger substrate and deeper, faster flowing water. Parr go through a physiological process called “smoltification” in which they develop a tolerance for saltwater and imprint on the chemical nature of their stream so they can later return to spawn.

As smolts, Atlantic salmon (now about 2 years old) migrate to the open ocean. They typically spend their first winter south of Greenland, where they mature into adults. During this time, the fish replace their old dietary preferences of small crustaceans and krill with prey fish such as Atlantic herring and rainbow smelt.

After about 2 years, they will return to Maine to spawn in November. Unlike other salmon species, Atlantic salmon are iteroparous, meaning they may spawn more than once.

The Fishery

The Atlantic salmon has been a commercially valuable fish since the fishery opened in Maine in the 1600’s, but due to overfishing, the global population began to decline around the 1800’s. In 1947, fishery landings plummeted to as low as 40 salmon, prompting an effective closure the following year. It wasn’t until 1989, however, that all state and federal commercial salmon fisheries in New England were officially closed by law. Most recreational fisheries in New England also closed decades ago, but a few remain open today under strict regulation.

In 2000, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population segment endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In 2009, the agencies extended the ESA protection to include more territory and, with the help of Conservation Law Foundation, identified Atlantic salmon critical habitat.

To monitor the Gulf of Maine DPS, the U.S. Atlantic Salmon Assessment Committee measures the number of adults returning to rivers in Maine to spawn each year. While some populations in the Northern Baltic Sea may be recovering, the Gulf of Maine DPS is still in trouble. In 2006, the Atlantic Salmon Biological Review Team estimated Atlantic salmon extinction risk at 19-75%.

With U.S. fisheries closed, why is the Gulf of Maine population still at risk of extinction?

Climate change effects, such as warming sea surface temperatures, increased water acidity and aluminum toxicity, and altered predator distributions, dramatically limit juvenile survival. Increased harvests in Greenland may also severely decrease the number of adults returning to Maine to spawn. Finally, New England coastal development and dam sites threaten species that must travel up and down river throughout their life cycles. Restoration efforts have been introduced by the State of Maine, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to reduce the effects of national risks, and environmental groups such as the Atlantic Salmon Federation are calling for stricter catch limits on European countries in order to protect the Gulf of Maine DPS.

 The Fish Farm

Since 1864, Atlantic salmon have been hatchery-raised to supplement the crashed wild populations. U.S. Atlantic salmon aquaculture produces about 12,000 live lbs per year in Maine and 8,000 live lbs per year in Washington. We import about 28,000 live lbs of farmed Atlantic salmon each year mostly from Canada, Chile, Norway, or Scotland.

Over 20 environmental and food safety laws govern U.S. salmon farming in order to prevent issues such as nutrient discharge, animal escape, disease and pathogens, and coastal use conflict. However, as NOAA puts it, “zero environmental risk is not realistic for any type of human activity.” Farming may cause waste build-up, escaped farmed fish may introduce parasites to the wild, and breeding between farmed and wild salmon may decrease genetic adaptations to environmental conditions. Regulations are in place, but the industry is still far from perfect.

Save the Salmon!

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) selected the Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon DPS as one of eight endangered species to feature in their “Species in the Spotlight: Survive to Thrive” initiative. Hopefully, the agency’s concentrated efforts (and subsequent increased global awareness) will begin to stabilize Atlantic salmon populations in the Gulf of Maine and around the world.

Image credits: Timothy Knepp, FWS; NOAA

A Vote to Protect Mid-Atlantic Deep Sea Corals

On June 10, just two days after World Oceans Day, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) voted to create the largest marine protected area in U.S. Atlantic waters. The Deep Sea Corals Amendment to the Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan protects over 38,000 square miles of ocean stretching from Virginia to New York, including recently discovered “submarine” canyons in the Outer Continental Shelf. The protected area includes 15 discrete coral zones (areas of known or highly likely coral presence) and a broad coral zone extending 200 miles offshore. The Amendment bans trawling and dredging at depths greater than 1,450 feet, safeguarding most deep sea corals in the proposed protected area.

Deep sea corals live between 50 to 2,000 meters below the ocean’s surface, and recent NOAA expeditions have discovered more than 40 coral species in the Mid-Atlantic region, including three species believed to be new to science. They grow slowly and may live to be thousands of years old, making them extremely susceptible to lasting damage from bottom trawlers.

A Victory for Ocean Conservation

Environmental groups are ecstatic that the Amendment, which was three years in the making, finally made it through MAFMC. The proposed protection is important because one sweep of a trawl net can destroy what’s taken centuries to grow – a problem not only for the corals, but also for the marine species that use the corals as a nursery and refuge habitat. These populations include commercially valuable species such as tuna, lobster, and squid that many East Coast residents depend on for their livelihoods. Protecting these corals is highly valuable from a habitat perspective, as well as for understanding ocean history. By studying the trace elements and isotopes incorporated in century-old corals, scientists can learn about historic ocean climate and current systems.

Unlike the environmental realm, the fishing industry is a divided front. Some squid fishermen are concerned about the effects of restrictions on their catch, while others cooperated with scientists to help determine boundaries for the protected area. Gregory P. DiDomenico, Executive Director of the Garden State Seafood Association says that the squid fishing industry may disagree with conservation groups about specific implementation strategies, but that the industry is largely supportive of the restrictions. “If we stay in business and protect corals, we’ve done our job.”

We still have work to do.

This protection, if approved, will be a huge step forward in preserving Mid-Atlantic deep sea habitat, but there are many factors still threatening deep sea corals in the Atlantic. First, the Amendment only applies to deep sea corals in the Mid-Atlantic region. Corals outside of the protected area will still be vulnerable to the most destructive forms of fishing gear, and shallow-water coral (even within the protected region), such as those off the coast of Maryland, will be susceptible to offshore wind energy development. Moreover, the amendment does not address oil and gas exploration, drilling, or other underwater activities, even within the proposed protected area. As Gib Brogan of Oceana puts it, “We hope the Obama administration won’t reverse these important steps to protect deep sea corals by putting the region at risk from the impacts of seismic airguns and offshore oil and gas development.”

The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) is slated to resume work on the Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment this year. The process invites stakeholder participation and rounds of public comments. One round of public comments for the MAFMC generated over 120,000 letters, almost all in favor of substantial deep sea coral protection. This is our chance to win protection for the breathtaking New England deep sea coral communities that are critical to the region’s sustainable fisheries, ecosystem functioning, and our understanding of ocean history. Stay tuned for opportunities to engage with NEFMC!

Image via NOAA

Welcome to Our First Fish Friday! This Week: Atlantic Sturgeon

The New England Ocean Odyssey team would like to welcome you to our new weekly series all about New England’s special ocean species! While we will primarily feature the region’s exceptional fish, we can’t guarantee that we won’t throw in the occasional marine mammal, reptile, or invertebrate. We couldn’t possibly resist discussing Atlantic harbor seals, Kemp’s ridley turtles, and American lobsters. So join us every Friday to learn about the ecologically essential, economically critical, and craziest-looking sea creatures in New England!

Let’s dive into this week’s feature: the threatened, yet resilient Atlantic sturgeon

This fish species looks like a creature from prehistoric times, and for good reason. Sturgeons (family Acipenseridae) are a group of primitive fishes that emerged about 70 million years ago during the Upper Cretaceous epoch. In fact, some of the best-preserved fossils were discovered in dinosaur stomachs! While sturgeons today have cartilaginous skeletons (as opposed to their bony ancestors), they have retained many primitive features. These include bony plates (called scutes) instead of scales, long “whiskers” (called barbels) covered in taste buds that dangle from the underside of their snouts, and the ability to shoot out their tubular mouths to inhale prey1.

Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) can be distinguished from other sturgeon species by their large size, small mouth, and distinct snout shape. They range from dark blue and black to olive green on their backs and have lighter bellies. Adults can measure up to 800 pounds and may reach 14 feet long!

They have been aged up to 60 years old and generally reach sexual maturity between 10 and 35 years old, although southern populations may mature faster. Males typically spawn every 1 to 5 years, while females will spawn every 2 to 5 years.

Human Threats

Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in fresh water, spend a majority of their adult lives in the ocean, and return to fresh water to spawn. In the spring (May and June in northern waters), Atlantic sturgeon migrate from their oceanic ranges into rivers along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Labrador, Canada, where they spawn at the border of fresh and salt water. This dependence on estuarine habitat, in combination with late spawning age, makes Atlantic sturgeon particularly vulnerable to human threats such as dams, water pollution, and overfishing.

In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the federal government implemented a coast-wide moratorium on commercial harvest that remains in place today. While this prevents intentional harvest of Atlantic sturgeon, many factors continue to threaten stocks up and down the coast: dams prevent migration to spawning grounds, dredging ruins spawning areas altogether, water pollution (often due to coastal development) hinders juvenile development, and other commercial fisheries accidentally harvest Atlantic sturgeon as bycatch.

To address these additional threats, NOAA listed five populations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2012. The Gulf of Maine population was listed as threatened, while the Chesapeake Bay, New York Bight, Carolina, and South Atlantic populations were listed as endangered.

With money made available by the ESA listing, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service was able to invest in research to determine human threats to Atlantic sturgeon populations and devise mitigation strategies, such as nets that will allow sturgeon to escape while still capturing smaller fish.

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In the Gulf of Maine, multiple dams have been or will be removed, allowing Atlantic sturgeon to return to their historical spawning grounds. There have recently been reports of potentially higher catch-per-unit-effort than in the past – a sign that the population may be recovering.

There are still a lot of cards stacked against the Atlantic sturgeon; we have much left to learn about their distribution, and, at the moment, NOAA has little control over when and where dredging occurs. But, as conservation writer and editor Ted Williams says, “Maybe the greatest value of the Endangered Species Act — greater even than information it generates about how and where animals live and the threats they face — is the knowledge that it’s not too late to save them…Atlantic sturgeon didn’t make it for 70 million years without being resilient.”

Sammi Dowdell is the Ocean Conservation Program Summer Intern for Conservation Law Foundation.

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.