This post is an excerpt from an opinion piece in The Patriot Ledger, in which former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (Republican, former Chair of the House Science Committee) expresses his support of Marine National Monument designation in New England. You can read the entire piece here.
In 2006, President George W. Bush wisely used his presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to protect a vital ocean ecosystem off the coast of Hawaii. Two years later, again in the Pacific, he protected other critically important marine areas characterized by reefs, atolls and vast underwater canyons.
All together he created four Marine National Monuments covering more than 600,000 square miles. Preserving these ecologically important marine habitats was essential for the residents of Hawaii, Guam and other Pacific islands, who depend heavily on a healthy and productive ocean. These monuments enjoy overwhelming local support.
Here in the Northeast we rely on a healthy and productive Atlantic Ocean, which is why I was thrilled to learn that the Obama Administration is considering the same protection for New England’s coral canyons and seamounts, a biologically critical area of ocean 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.
True to its name, this area is characterized by underwater canyons – some of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon – and mountains extending up to 7,000 feet from the ocean floor. It is a unique underwater environment that hosts a rich and diverse array of life, which is crucial to the health and resilience of New England’s ocean fish and marine mammal populations.
The many colorful cold-water corals that inhabit these canyons and seamounts, some of which are the size of small trees, take centuries to grow and were alive back in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt was signing the Antiquities Act into law.
And with the livelihood of so many, along with the maritime culture and heritage of our coastal communities, hinging on responsible ocean stewardship, this is an area that clearly should be the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monument.
Former Conservation Law Foundation Staff Attorney Roger Fleming, who is now a part of the Oceans litigation team at EarthJustice, details how the National Monument establishment process through the Antiquities Act serves the public’s interest.
By Roger Fleming
One hundred-nine years ago this week President Teddy Roosevelt created the first national monument, protecting the magnificent Devil’s Tower formation in Wyoming. Since then, sixteen presidents – eight from each party — have used the power granted by Congress in the Antiquities Act to create more than 115 monuments protecting the nation’s natural and historic heritage on land and at sea, from the Statue of Liberty to the Marianas Trench.
Now we have a chance to see that proud tradition in action again to protect a national treasure right here in our backyard with a Marine National Monument off New England’s coast. On September 15, 2015, NOAA hosted a town hall meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, in order to discuss the possible establishment of a monument that could include deep sea Coral Canyons and Seamounts and Cashes Ledge. Scientists have identified these areas as deserving of special protection due to unique undersea terrain and nutrient upwelling that supports cold water coral gardens, our largest cold water kelp forest, fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and more.
A broad coalition of scientists, small business owners, fishermen, faith groups, civic leaders, and conservationists have sent a clear message that we need to save these ecologically important places before irreparable damage is done, so that future generations can enjoy their unimaginable beauty and a healthier marine environment. That is exactly what the Antiquities Act is intended to do.
Unfortunately, opponents in the fishing industry have attempted to muddy the waters with unfounded concerns about the “process” being used to provide protection for these areas.
Opponents who spoke at NOAA’s town hall event argued that the monument designation process is undemocratic, and that decisions about how to manage these areas should be left to the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing in the region’s federal waters.
Many who gave comment also complained about a lack of opportunity for public comment on the monument designation. Let that sink in for a moment: complaints about a lack of public comment were made while giving public comment.
Let’s set the record straight on a few things.
First, the monuments process is democratic.
President Obama has the authority to establish permanent protection of these areas through designation of a monument under the Antiquities Act. This Act is another tool provided to the democratically-elected president by our democratically-elected Congress to preserve areas identified as historic landmarks and areas of scientific interest before it is too late – before the opportunity to save a valuable resource is lost. This president’s predecessor, George W. Bush, created four monuments in the Pacific Ocean covering a total of 860,000 square kilometers. None exist in the Atlantic Ocean.
Second, there has been—and continues to be—public input into the process.
Already in this nascent proposal for a new marine monument there has been a town hall meeting where anyone wishing to do so was given the opportunity to speak and an ongoing public comment period through which over 160,000 people have already written in support of saving these important places. Arguably, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to provide opportunities to be heard on a proposal, in circumstances where it is not at all required to by law.
Leading up to the monument proposal, there were years of study of these areas and numerous opportunities for the public and other stakeholders to provide relevant scientific, economic, and other information, and to otherwise make their views known as possible protections were discussed in different venues, including the fishery management process. Because the President’s decision must be based on science, this will all be considered.
Third, the New England Fishery Management Council has a checkered history regarding public and scientific involvement, and an even worse record as a steward of the public’s ocean resources.
The fishery management process remains dominated by the fishing industry and fails to adequately consider broader public interests. One need only look to the status of New England’s iconic fish species, the Atlantic cod, for evidence of this. Cod stocks have collapsed and the region’s groundfishing sector was declared a disaster, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The record clearly shows that New England’s Council ignored repeated warnings from science about the deteriorating condition of cod stocks until it was far too late. Just last year more than a hundred-forty scientists and more than 150,000 members of public implored the council to protect more habitat for these and other depleted fish. But the Council instead voted to slash the amount of essential fish habitat protected by more than 60 percent.
The Council did succeed in identifying the ecological, economic, and social importance of the Cashes Ledge Closed area, and has closed the area to most bottom fishing. However, this action came only after an earlier vote to strip existing protections from that area. Further, the limited protections in place leave nearly all of the area open to other fishing, including the East Coast’s largest fishing vessels – industrial midwater trawlers – which are capable of stripping the area of essential forage fish, catching non-targeted fish, mammals and other marine animals as bycatch, and are known to contact the bottom when fishing. The protections in place are not permanent and could be removed at any time through the fishery management process.
Similarly, the New England canyons and seamounts have been identified by the Council as important ecological areas but they have received very few protections which are not worthy of their unique ecological importance.
Finally, this is not just about fishing.
New England’s “Fishery Management” Council has no authority to address other potential threats that could surface for the area, such as marine mining, drilling, or other industrial activity. Unlike the tenuous, partial protections now in place for Cashes Ledge and New England’s Canyons and Seamounts, a national monument provides permanent protection against all types of harmful extraction.
Such protection would benefit critically endangered right whales, which are known to depend on Cashes Ledge, fantastic deep-sea corals in the Canyons and Seamounts, and the important sea birds that feed on the surface of these rich waters. Many coastal businesses, including many fishermen, support the proposal because they recognize there will also be broad economic benefits that will result from protecting these unique treasures and a healthier marine environment.
These areas belong to the U.S. public, and overwhelming evidence shows that the monument process is fair and that a marine monument would best serve the public’s interests now and into the future.
Do you love to walk along the ocean beaches, watch the magnificent marine wildlife, surf, sunbathe, kayak, SUP (stand up paddle board), canoe, swim, or engage in any other type of recreational ocean activity? If so, your help is needed!
The Northeast Ocean Plan is in development and decision-makers need more information on how visitors and residents enjoy the Northeast coast. This survey is a proactive opportunity for beach lovers who are 18+ years old to provide that missing information, to help identity New England’s recreational areas and uses so they are part of the ocean planning process.
If you don’t identify your special coastal place, who will?
Take the survey today and share the link with your friends!
Guest Blog by Melissa Gates, Surfrider Foundation Northeast Regional Manager. This post was originally featured on Healthy Oceans Coalition.
A new study to characterize coastal and marine recreational activity in New England has been launched to support the Northeast regional ocean planning process. Directed by the Northeast Regional Planning Body and led by Point 97, SeaPlan, and the Surfrider Foundation, the project will collect information on a variety of recreational uses such as beach going, wildlife viewing, surfing, and kayaking.
SeaPlan is collaborating with industry leaders such as charter boat operators and event organizers to determine data collection approaches and map sailing regattas, commercial whale watching, SCUBA diving and marine events.
Surfrider is leading an opt-in online survey effort to collect data from individuals who are 18+ years of age and have visited New England’s coast at least once in the last 12 months.
The survey launched on November 13, 2014, and will be available online through midnight on April 30, 2015 (survey overview video).
Information collected through this survey includes where and how people enjoy New England’s ocean and coast in low-impact, non-consumptive ways, such as walking along the shore, wildlife watching, surfing, kayaking and swimming. Data collected will help identify spatial information for recreational uses in the Northeast, as well as associated economic values.
The study results will be published in a final report and spatial data layers will be incorporated into the Northeast Ocean Data Portal to assist the Northeast Regional Planning Body with the ocean planning process.
“Any successful ocean planning effort relies on science-based, credible information about our ocean uses and natural resources, collected through tools like this recreational use survey. By better understanding the regional nature of ocean activities, habitat, marine life and ocean processes, we can work together to make more informed decisions about how we manage the ocean here in New England,” says Betsy Nicholson from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and federal co-lead of the Northeast Regional Planning Body.
To learn more about the Northeast study and Surfrider Foundation’s involvement in Northeast regional ocean planning, visit: http://bit.ly/NE_Study.
To learn about volunteer opportunities to help promote participation in this study, contact Melissa Gates at 207-706-6378 or via email at mgates [at] surfrider [dot] org.
The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches through conservation, activism, research and education.
Feature photo: October 13, Common dolphin jumping a boat wake in the Atlantic Ocean. Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale
The Gulf of Maine is traversed by many species of marine mammals, from soulful harbor seals to the greatest of whales, either as local residents or tourists on their breeding and feeding voyages. Among the most charismatic of all are dolphins. Besides spotting them from whale-watching boats, how much do you actually know about New England’s native dolphins?
“When people think of dolphins, they think of tropical animals,” says Brian Sharp, stranding director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, located in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod. “But you’ve really not seen a dolphin until you’ve seen one of the species endemic to New England waters.”
The two species of dolphin most frequently sighted around Cape Cod Bay have one thing in common: their markings look like custom paint jobs. And although striped dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, and the occasional bottlenose will sometimes pass through, it’s these two species of streamlined wave-riders that New Englanders most often spy skirting the edge of the continental shelf.
Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis)
At 6 to 7 feet long and a svelte 165 to 300 pounds, common dolphins are like “wide receivers” in build, says Tony LaCasse, media relations director of the New England Aquarium and a longtime dolphin rescuer. Even when stranded, common dolphins are communicative, chattering to the other members of their pod through clicks, whirrs, and whistles. Rescuers will often point them towards each other in order to reassure them. They are dark grey and tan with white countercolored bellies, an hourglass shape on their side, and a stripe from their eye to their mouth giving them a masked appearance. They have a long rostrum, or snout.
Even salty, seasoned boat captains describe Atlantic white-sided dolphins as “beautiful.” These cetaceans sport natural detailing of bold white and silver patches on their sides, with a yellow or tan stripe that leads to their tail. At 7 to 9 feet long, and weighing in at more than 500 pounds, they are “girthier” than common dolphins, a look accentuated by their short rostrum. LaCasse compares them to “linebackers:” brawny, husky, and stoic while awaiting rescue at the beach
Most dolphins skim the continental shelf and shelf edge, swimming closer to the coastline if they are hot on the trail of prey such as a school of herring, hake, mackerel, smelt, or anchovies.
Unfortunately, coming near to shore makes dolphins vulnerable to running aground. It’s really impossible to talk about dolphins in New England without giving attention to strandings. Knowing how this phenomenon occurs can help us understand even more about our endemic dolphin species.
Mass strandings in New England have happened longer than humans can remember. Cape Cod Bay, a hooked sandbar with a gently sloping shore, is a notorious trap for dolphins. Anyone who has combed the beaches of the Cape knows that when the tide goes out, it runs out far and fast—so if you are a dolphin who has pursued your prey close to shore, that shallow beach profile with its hidden sandbars can leave you high and dry before you even know what’s happening.
Along the New England coast, “as far as we know, the commonest mass strandings are behaviorally driven, without a human cause,” says Michael Moore, Director of the Marine Mammal Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Dolphins, the highly social animals that they are, may follow a sick lead animal inland. Even healthy lead animals can have their echolocation disoriented by mucky water caused by a turn of the tide, or the cloudy aftermath of a nor’easter.
Once dolphins are stranded, time is of the essence in a rescue. Gravity on land presses hard on marine mammals whose skeletons have not evolved to resist its force and protect their internal organs (seals are built to spend significant periods on land, but not so cetaceans). They can suffer significant internal trauma if out of the buoyant salt water for too long. Also, the hot sun can burn dolphin skin in summer, and frostbite can singe it in the winter. There is little temporal margin for error if dolphins are going to be viable again back at sea.
Mass dolphin strandings (from 2 to 20 individuals) occur most often in the winter, from December through April. With the lack of daylight on short winter days, the Northeast Regional Stranding Network monitors and patrols beaches in order to stay ahead of a potential crisis.
Imagine a stranding like a military triage situation. The Cape’s tidal flats can go out a long way, so a dolphin might be stranded as much as a mile from the road. They might be in three feet of tidal mud, or beached on a sand bar far from the water’s edge. Rescuers have refined the use of all-terrain dolphin carts, stretchers with cut-out holes for pectoral fins, and transport trailers that are enclosed and lined to make rescue faster, more efficient, and less traumatic. Even with all that technology, it still can take six people to carry and load a slippery, unwieldy dolphin, so rescuing is muddy, strenuous, and emotional work!
Rescued dolphins are tagged and then released from Herring Cove or Race Point in Provincetown, MA where there are fast drop-offs into deep water. The Provincetown Fire Department sets up lights on the beach to aid rescuers, and trained response volunteers in drysuits walk the dolphins out into the water.
The satellite tags reveal that after a day or two of getting their bearings, even single dolphins usually find their way back to the pod. They will link up with other released dolphins in their family group and then travel together, often heading out towards Georges or Stellwagen Bank… staying well clear of land!
While little can be done to prevent geographically-caused mass strandings, you can support your local rescue network to make sure that stranded animals have a viable chance at survival. Single animal strandings often caused by illness, injury, or entanglement in fishing gear are more complex. In that case, advocating for responsible, sustainable fishing practices will help dolphins and other pelagic species avoid becoming bycatch casualties.
Dolphins are very much residents of New England waters, and there are more of them out there than we might realize: “When you see four or five dolphins at the surface,” says Brian Sharp, “it can be an iceberg effect: that really is a small portion of the number of animals actually around you, below the water and beyond your vision.”
Hopefully what you have learned here will help expand your vision so that you will see our endemic dolphin species even more clearly!
If you find a dolphin stranded south of Boston, please telephone IFAW’s stranding hotline at 508-743-9548. From Boston on north, please dial the New England Aquarium’s Marine Animal Hotline at 617-973-5247. For entanglements or by-caught cetaceans, please call the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies at 1-800-900-3622.
When most of us think of coral, we picture a scene not unlike that found in Pixar’s Finding Nemo: a vast multicolored reef in the warm shallow waters of the tropics, inhabited by a multitude of equally colorful fish. But did you know that many intricate and colorful species of coral can be found right here in our own New England waters? Growing along the ridges of underwater canyons and seamounts off the Atlantic coast, the New England version of a tropical reef plays host to our own aquatic flora and fauna, more suited to the chilly waters of the northwest Atlantic.
Though they resemble undersea plants, corals are in fact colonies of tiny, soft-bodied invertebrates whose secreted exoskeletons form, over time, the large and intricate structures that we recognize as coral. In the warm waters of the tropics, groups of these exoskeletoned colonies form extensive reefs in the clear, shallow waters close to the shore.
Though snorkelers may appreciate the clear waters of the tropics, the water is so clear in these areas because it contains few nutrients or plankton. Very little mixing of the water column occurs in these uniformly warm waters, so nutrients remain trapped on the bottom of the sea, preventing the multiplication of plankton, and leaving the water empty of food. As a result, tropical corals get their nutrients through a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae, which grows inside the coral and lends it energy from the sun. Large animals like whales, however, are unable to sustain themselves by hosting algae. Instead, whales like humpbacks and right whales breed in tropical waters but return to New England to feed in the summer. The constantly mixing warm and cold waters of New England bring nutrients to the surface, encouraging plankton growth, and are thus a veritable soup of life. New England corals enjoy this soup just as much as the whales do, and most of them filter feed instead of relying on algae to do the work for them.
New England corals live not in the near-shore shallows but along underwater canyons and seamounts. Last summer, NOAA’s Okeanos mission documented some of the wide array of marine life in the Northeast’s canyons, including Oceanographer Canyon, a deep underwater channel that cuts into the southern edge of Georges Bank. You can see images and video from the mission here. The seamounts are part of the New England Seamount Chain and often rise to within 100 feet of the ocean surface, ensuring a rich habitat for undersea creatures due to the high concentration of particulates in the water and the nearness of sunlight.
Unfortunately, cold water corals grow slowly and are very susceptible to the effects of trawling, which is why Fishery Management Councils along the east coast have begun to take action to protect areas like canyons and seamounts with rich deep-sea coral populations.
New England’s corals are surrounded by towering kelp forests, fish and mammals of all kinds, and even sea turtles. So if you’ve ever wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef, but balked at the idea of that plane ticket to Australia, consider exploring the underwater scenery right in our own backyard!
Many NEOO readers may have come across a description of the relationship between sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp in a biology textbook. A quick recap: sea otters prey on sea urchins, which live in kelp beds and which, in turn, prey on the kelp itself. Sea otter predation, then, protects kelp from predation and allows kelp forests to flourish. Fewer of us are likely to have heard of the Atlantic wolffish, but this snaggle-toothed New England native plays the same role here that the sea otter does in the Pacific: keeping the urchin population down and the kelp population up. Of course, this is good news for kelp, but is it good news for us as well?
The answer is a resounding yes. Kelp provides essential habitat for countless marine species, including commercially important fish. Furthermore, scientific evidence suggests that kelp forests, like their terrestrial equivalents, play an important role in carbon sequestration.
Plants take in and store CO2 as part of the process of photosynthesis. Some of the carbon stored in plants is soon released when the plant decomposes, but some is sequestered in carbon sinks. Forests, swamps, and especially the ocean are all important carbon sinks. Kelp, boasting both a high uptake of atmospheric CO2 and an ocean floor habitat, is a particularly important player in carbon sequestration, and this role is becoming even more important in the face of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and anthropogenic climate change.
New England is home to abundant and diverse kelp forests, notably at Cashes Ledge, where forests of towering laminarian and perforated shotgun kelp grow thickly on the undersea mountain slopes, sheltering abundant fauna including whales, seals, sharks, and commercially important fish such as the Atlantic cod. Detritus from this kelp forest tumbles off the ledge into the neighboring basin, where these nutrients are recycled back into the ecosystem and fuel incredible productivity. Kelp forests like the one at Cashes Ledge may be a critical component of our oceans’ ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change and ocean acidification caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The loss of an apex predator such as the Atlantic wolffish, and a subsequent increase in herbivores (urchins, in this case), leading to a decrease in carbon sequestering plants such as kelp is a well-known effect called a trophic cascade. We can speed such trophic cascades along, in this case either by reducing Atlantic wolfish populations through bycatch and habitat destruction, or by skipping this step altogether and decimating kelp forests through destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling. Unfortunately, we’ve done just that—Atlantic wolffish are severely depleted, and the kelp forest at Cashes Ledge is threatened by a New England Fishery Management Council proposal that would reopen 75 percent of the area surrounding the kelp forest to commercial fishing (this area has been protected since 2002).
The news that apex predators such as the Atlantic wolfish can help preserve healthy populations of kelp, and that kelp in particular is a highly efficient carbon sequestering plant, tells us two things. First, while the Atlantic wolffish alone may not have much impact on overall climate change mitigation, protecting important predators like the wolffish will build resilience for our ecosystems in more ways than we can count. Second, we New Englanders should support habitat protection and responsible fishing practices that allow our kelp forests to continue flourishing. In doing so, we will promote carbon sequestration and provide habitat for countless fish—including the Atlantic wolffish, that friend of the kelp. After all, in the end, all ecosystems are cyclical.
Marine plants are the unsung heroes of ocean habitats, providing food, shelter, and substrate to the varied and wonderful animals we love to watch, photograph, or hook on the end of a line. One such plant, eelgrass, or Zostera marina, grows on sandy substrates or in estuaries along the coast and in the sounds of New England. Growing together in long green ribbons, a bed of eelgrass resembles an underwater meadow, swaying in the current.
Eelgrass serves a greater purpose than its beauty, however. Eelgrass beds aid sediment deposition and stabilize the substrate, preventing erosion. They also serve as a home and nursery for both micro-invertebrates and economically important fish and shellfish; a recent NOAA report on the importance of shallow water bottom habitat identified eelgrass as important habitat for juvenile cod, pollock, flounder, and hake, among other species. Eelgrass is also a major food source for several species of marine birds and waterfowl, including brants, redheads, widgeons, black ducks, and Canada geese, and for the endangered green sea turtle.
Although eelgrass is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, this essential marine plant is in danger of disappearing from much of its habitat. Several factors are contributing to the decline of eelgrass. Pollution from sewage and fertilizers is a major culprit—it creates an excess of nitrogen in the water, causing algal blooms that block sunlight from reaching the eelgrass and preventing its photosynthesis. Invasive green crabs also harm eelgrass beds by dislodging and shredding stalks of grass as they dig for softshell clams, and green crab populations are growing rapidly in New England. Shellfish rakes, dredges, and boat anchors also destroy eelgrass. In the future, eelgrass faces increased stress from rising ocean temperatures and water levels.
As a result, eelgrass is disappearing rapidly from many of the places it used to thrive, in turn endangering the myriad species that rely on eelgrass for food and shelter, and leading to sediment pollution due to the loss of this important anchor for the marine substrate. Narragansett Bay is one example—once filled with eelgrass, today it has lost 90% of its eelgrass beds.
Yet all hope may not be lost. Since 2001, volunteers and divers working through Save the Bay have participated in eelgrass transplanting efforts. Eelgrass is harvested from healthy beds in the southern end of Narragansett Bay, sorted, and then hand planted by divers, who attach shoots of eelgrass to bamboo skewers and secure the sewers in the substrate. While some of the transplanted beds have failed, others have flourished and spread.
Similar restoration projects are underway in other locations, including Boston Harbor. Efforts to map the current and historical distribution of eelgrass beds are also ongoing in several states and will provide a valuable baseline for future restoration and conservation.
If efforts to mitigate the stresses on eelgrass and restore its original range continue, there is hope for this marine hero—and the abundance of life it supports—to thrive once more.