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: 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.

Marine Mammals and Underwater Mountains: More Evidence for Protecting Habitats with Diverse Wildlife

The deep-water canyons, seamounts, and underwater mountain ranges in the coastal waters of New England are gaining recognition for their importance to the health of fish populations like the struggling Atlantic cod. But these unique geological formations are also critical for the marine mammals that call the North Atlantic home.

Hail the WhalesNorth Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf

The Atlantic coast is a veritable highway for migrating whales, which travel from breeding grounds in the south to feeding grounds in the north each year. But with many species facing reduced habitat, diminished populations, and increased boat traffic, this annual journey has become more and more difficult. These growing threats make areas of food abundance and shelter, such as Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts, ever more critical to the success of migrating whales’ journeys.

Cashes Ledge and the canyons and seamounts are unique in the Atlantic because their topography creates ideal conditions for plankton, zooplankton, and copepods – the main food for migrating minke, right, and humpback whales – to thrive. They also serve as spawning ground for larger food sources – including many squish, fish, and crustaceans. Altogether, this rich abundance of species adds up to a bountiful buffet for whales and other marine mammals.

Sperm whales have often been spotted in the waters of seamounts, taking advantage of the reliable food, and Cashes Ledge serves as an oasis for hungry whales on their journey north.

The healthy kelp domino effect

These areas are not only crucial to whales; other marine mammals depend on them as well. Cashes Ledge boasts the largest coldwater kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard, a habitat that creates ideal spawning grounds for cod, herring, and hake. The abundance of fish in turn feeds seals and porpoises, as well as whales.

Scientists have noted a positive correlation between the size of an undersea kelp forest and populations of marine mammals, suggesting that more, healthy kelp means more marine mammals. That makes protecting areas with large kelp forests such as Cashes Ledge even more important.

Even marine mammals that don’t visit Cashes Ledge itself still benefit from the protection of the area’s kelp forest, thanks to the “spillover effect:” Fish spawned in the shelter of the rocky crevasses and havens of the kelp forests disperse beyond Cashes Ledge and feed sea animals throughout the Gulf of Maine.

Across the globe, underwater mountain and canyon habitats have proved to be important areas where marine mammals congregate to feed – and the canyons, seamounts, and ledges off the coast of New England are no different. Unfortunately, these important ecosystems are delicate and facing threats from harmful fishing gear and climate change.

With so much at stake, it is vital to protect these places – not only for their inherent ecological value, but also so that they may sustain the mammals that depend on them.

Zooplankton: A tiny creature with a big role in the cod crisis

One of the North Atlantic’s smallest ocean critters is making big waves in New England.

Centropages. Photo courtesy NOAA
Centropages. Photo courtesy NOAA

Over the last decade, we’ve seen the collapse of our iconic Atlantic cod fishery due to extreme overfishing. Now, a new study is showing a potentially disastrous link between the effects of climate change and the ailing species’ chance of recovery.

Warming waters are bound to be bad news for a cold water fish, but the problem goes much deeper than that, affecting the entire life cycle of the species. Some of this is due to tiny, microscopic creatures called zooplankton. So what are these little guys, and why are they so important?

Zooplankton is a categorization of a type of ocean organism that includes various species, including Pseudocalanus spp, and Centropages typicus. These two species happen to be the major food source of larval cod in the Gulf of Maine.

Zooplankton, which are usually smaller than 1/10 of an inch, play a major role in the Atlantic’s food web. When there are lots of them, things are pretty good. Young fish prey on them and grow to be healthy, adult fish.

But when there aren’t enough plankton to go around, species like Atlantic cod can suffer. When cod larvae aren’t easily able to find the food they need to grow, fewer of them make it to their first birthday.

And without lots of cod that survive to be at least 4 years old (the age at which females begin spawning), the recovery of the entire stock can stall. The stock needs larger, older, more productive females to thrive in order to have any hope for recovery.

Warming and shifting

But why would the plankton be in such short supply? This is where climate change comes in. According to NOAA, temperature changes can cause the redistribution of plankton communities. In the Gulf of Maine, scientists have found fewer plankton in the same areas where cod populations have been found to be struggling. The shifts in temperature lead to the displacement of a critical food source, making it difficult for young cod to survive.

Larval cod. Photo courtesy NOAA
Larval cod. Photo courtesy NOAA

With the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of ocean areas, this is an enormously alarming problem. More temperature changes and the shifting of plankton populations could make it even harder for New England cod populations to return to healthy, sustainable levels.

While the cod crisis is the result of many factors – but the loss of tiny zooplankton is a big problem. When considering how to best help cod stocks recover, fishery managers must take into account the effects of climate change, or else risk the total collapse of the species.

BOO! Happy Halloween from this spooky species, the Monkfish


Photo courtesy Mike Beauregard via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Halloween, we’ve decided to highlight one of the more creepy looking fish that can be found in the waters off of New England. The monkfish (Lophius americanus), also known as goose-fish, anglerfish, and sea-devil, is considered a delicacy abroad, but until recently has been overlooked in America, perhaps due to its obtrusive appearance.

The monkfish is highly recognizable, with its brown, tadpole-shaped body, and its gaping, fang-filled mouth. These eerie-looking fish can be found from Newfoundland to Georges Bank, and all the way down to North Carolina. They prefer to dwell on the sandy or muddy ocean-floor, where they feed on a variety of small lobsters, fish, and eels. Monkfish are typically found at depths of 230-330 feet, but have been caught in waters as deep as 2,700 feet; they have also been known to occasionally rise to the surface and consume small, unsuspecting birds. Females can grow up to forty inches and males up to thirty-five inches, and both can weigh up to seventy pounds. The average market size fish is around seventeen to twenty inches long.

Before the 1960s, monkfish were considered to be undesirable bycatch. However, in the wake of the collapse of the New England Atlantic Cod fishery, the monkfish has slowly started to become a more common alternative, in part due to awareness campaigns about “underutilized species” in New England. Now, monkfish is caught to supply both international and domestic demand – the tail is prized for its firm texture and sweet taste, perfect for baking and poaching, and the liver is used in Japanese sushi.

In fact, in the last two decades, fishing has increased so dramatically that monkfish stocks started to decline. Landings peaked in 1997 at sixty million pounds. However, thanks to the quick action of both the United States and Canada, a management plan was put in place and the stock population started to increase and stabilize. Landings now average around thirty-five million pounds annually. Monkfish are caught using trawls, gillnets, and dredges. The fishery is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the New England Regional Fishery Management Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. These organizations do not impose annual catch limits, but do limit daily catches as well as limit access to the fishery. Nevertheless, the catch is still exceeding target catch levels in certain locations.

Current threats to monkfish are common among New England marine species: warming temperatures, ocean acidification, and habitat loss.

NOAA Fishwatch considers monkfish to be well managed and a “smart seafood choice” – however, it is still vulnerable, and the fishery should continue to be closely monitored, or it could suffer the same fate as other groundfish fisheries.

So, if you are looking for a spooky-themed seafood dish for this weekend’s festivities, it might be time to give monkfish a try… It would also make one unique Halloween costume!

Celebrating New England Lobsters on National Lobster Day

Cashes Ledge Lobster
A lobster at Cashes Ledge. Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that New Englanders love lobster. It’s weaved into our culture and history, and it’s unimaginable to think of New England without this famed summer seafood.

Few know that lobsters were once so plentiful in New England that Native Americans used them as fertilizer for their fields, and as bait for fishing. And before trapping was common, “catching” a lobster meant picking one up along the shoreline!

During World War II, lobster was viewed as a delicacy, so it wasn’t rationed like other food sources. Lobster meat filled a demand for protein-rich sources, and continued to increase in popularity in post-war years, which encouraged more people to join the industry.

Popular ever since, now when most people are asked what comes to mind when they think of New England, seafood – especially lobster – is typically at the top of the list.

An industry under threat

We love our New England lobster, but there’s evidence suggesting they’re in danger of moving away from their longtime home. That’s because lobster is under threat from climate change, the effects of which can already be seen on this particular species.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of ocean areas. Until last winter’s uncharacteristically cold temperatures, the prior few years saw an increase in catchable lobster – as the warmer temperatures cause them to molt early, and they move toward inshore waters after molting. However, continued warming will ultimately encourage the lobsters to move north to find colder waters, where they spend the majority of their time.

This is already happening in southern New England, where the industry is already suffering, seeing lobsters migrating northward.

And we’re still learning about the potential for damage caused by ocean acidification, as well as how lobsters may be affected by an increase in colder than usual New England winters.

As we celebrate one of New England’s iconic species on National Lobster Day, let’s remember that slowing down climate change is an important priority for ensuring that future generations can enjoy not Canadian or Icelandic lobster, but New England lobster. Click here to support Conservation Law Foundation’s efforts on fighting climate change.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

“Save the Whales” was a popular cry in the late 1980s to ban commercial whaling worldwide. While progress has certainly been made, this phrase should not be relegated to a dated trope: Many whale populations are still struggling, including our New England’s own North Atlantic Right Whale.

Found from Nova Scotia to Florida, the area from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Cod is essential for this endangered species. Its name comes from the idea that it was the “right” whale to hunt – it was slow-moving and had lots of oil and baleen. Commercial whaling for this species ended in 1935, but these New England whales are still rebuilding.

Zach Klyver, a naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch, has conducted surveys commissioned by the New England Aquarium on whales in the Cashes Ledge Area in the Gulf of Maine. During these winter surveys, Klyer says he saw many right whales breeching just before sunset. According to Klyver, “Cashes Ledge is a significant place for right whales year-round.”

Marine protected areas allow species like the right whale to find refuge from human threats and to thrive. Dr. Scott Kraus, marine scientist at the New England Aquarium, says that the reason Cashes Ledge in particular is important is because “The landscape underwater has a lot of steep angles and hills, so that any water currents rush to the surface. This makes plankton bloom, and it brings fish in – it’s a great restaurant for whales in New England.”

Thriving whale populations also help boost tourism during the popular whale-watching season—more whales means more opportunities for sightseeing. Tourism in New England provides 230,000 jobs and brings in $16 billion – more than all the fisheries, forestry, and agriculture industries combined – making it the life blood of New England’s economy.

An expanding coalition is working to establish permanent protections for Cashes Ledge and another important New England area, the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, by calling on President Obama to establish the first Marine National Monument in the Atlantic. Join the conversation on Twitter: Tweet with #SaveOceanTreasures