World Wildlife Day: Lowest North Atlantic right whale calving season in 15 years intensifies need for solutions

North Atlantic right whales have made headlines lately, and not just because they’re spending time off the coast of Cape Cod. Sadly, reports about the endangered whales have focused on the news that birth rates are now below the mortality rate – indicating population decline. Just three calves were born this winter, the lowest rate in at least 15 years.

A birth rate lower than the mortality rate means that not enough calves are being born to replace the ones that are dying. A likely factor in the decrease of births is the whales’ difficulty in finding reliable food sources. Without adequate fat storage, female right whales are giving birth every seven or so years instead of the normal rate of every three years.

This is troubling for any wildlife species, but especially so for the North Atlantic right whale, of which scientists say just 524 or so remain. (100 are breeding females.)

The recent designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – the first of its kind along the Atlantic seaboard – may help provide these whales with more reliable food sources. Science shows the monument area to be rich with marine wildlife, and with the 4,913 square miles protected from most industrial activity, undisturbed populations of plankton and copepods could help these whales in the long run.

Restoring food sources, though, is a long game, that faces a tougher trajectory as the ocean is becoming more and more crowded and temperatures are rising. With right whales moving around more often in search of food, they are at increased risk of facing their two largest (human-caused) threats: becoming entangled in fishing gear and being hit by a ship.

Ship strikes

Right whales tend to swim close to the surface, making them potential targets for ships that are moving quickly and/or don’t see the whales. The good news is that mortality rates from ship strikes are no longer increasing (even as ship traffic increases) after regulations were put into place requiring ships to decrease their speed in certain areas frequented by right whales during certain times of year. The bad news is that ship strikes are still a leading cause of death for right whales – averaging about one per year.

Fishing gear entanglements

Approximately four to five right whales die each year due to fishing gear entanglements, making it the leading cause of death for the species. In September 2016, Whale 3694 died of “chronic entanglement.” This death was even more heartbreaking than usual since she was of breeding age. It remains unclear whose fishing gear – or even which type of fishery – was responsible for the whale’s death.

Thankfully, there are groups working to understand which types of gear are most responsible for the deaths, and how changes in material and/or flexibility could help pose less of a risk for right whales. The Marine Mammal Commission is focusing its 2017 annual meeting on right whales; New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life has a research program aimed at finding solutions; other groups like the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and the Center for Coastal Studies – among many others – are working together to get right whales back on track toward population growth.

It’s worth noting that scientists are also working to identify other factors that could be at play to explain this year’s dramatically low number of calves, such as population-wide illness, pollution issues, or a genetic dysfunction. Calving season typically goes through the end of this month, so it’s possible we may still see another calf born before the winter is over.

The recent news is disappointing, and with attacks on the Endangered Species Act potentially brewing in congress, it’s critical that this work continues.

Read more about the North Atlantic right whale in our species profile, and share this post on Twitter with the #WorldWildlifeDay hashtag to help us raise awareness. 

National Geographic: Brian Skerry Takes First Underwater Photo of a U.S. President

Our partner for the ocean, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, took the first photograph of a U.S. president underwater when President Obama visited Midway Atoll last summer after announcing the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Weeks later, the president announced the first marine monument in the Atlantic and cemented his legacy as the “ocean president.”

In an interview with National Geographic, here’s what Brian has to say about the increased attention now being paid to ocean conservation:

“In my own career there’s been this evolution. I began just wanting to make beautiful pictures of things that interested me. Animals I thought were cool, places I was interested in traveling to. But over time, I’ve seen this steady degradation occurring in our oceans, things that aren’t evident to most people. As a journalist I have a sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to tell those stories . . . It’s very satisfying for me, having spent most of my life out there in the ocean, finally seeing these issues resonating at the highest levels among people who can really do something about it and make a difference. I just hope it’s not a one-off. I hope we continue.” Read the full interview here.

To hear more from Brian, mark your calendars for the premiere of Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures – featuring Cashes Ledge – airing Sunday, January 15 at 7 p.m. EST on National Geographic Channel.

Say “Thank You” to President Obama for the First Marine Monument in the Atlantic

President Obama made history last week, announcing the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – the first in the U.S. Atlantic!

Click here to send a “Thank You” message to President Obama for taking action for our oceans.

The announcement came during the third annual Our Ocean Conference, hosted by the U.S. Department of State, where world leaders came together to announce commitments (in money or action) to help address the critical issues facing the ocean – and all of us who rely on it.

This is a historic moment for our ocean, which is facing enormous pressures from climate change, overfishing, and increasing industrialization. The monument in New England will permanently protect four seamounts and three undersea canyons from human threats, allowing centuries-old coral formations and rare marine species to thrive. Scientists believe large, fully-protected marine areas are also more resilient to negative impacts from climate change, which will be paramount in the coming years as we aim to address this problem on a global and local level.

Check out our Seamounts Species Spotlight series to learn more about some of the critters found in these areas. And take a moment to “Like” our Facebook page, where we – along with other regional and national organizations – will continue to share information and build support for the permanent protection of additional critical ocean areas.

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!

Senator Blumenthal Calls on President Obama to Establish Marine National Monument in New England

On Aug. 4, Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut, with the support of the state’s entire congressional delegation, called on President Obama to designate the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as a Marine National Monument, leading our region in a critical step toward the permanent protection of this undersea treasure!

We applaud Senator Blumenthal for considering the enormous body of scientific research and public support that exists for this initiative and for his leadership in advancing this important work for the people of Connecticut, the people of New England, the people of the United States, and the people of the world. In this critical time, when we are not only demanding more of our ocean resources but also experiencing the impacts of climate change, it is imperative that we protect important areas to ensure that our ocean ecosystem – which includes its wildlife and habitats – is healthy and thriving, now and into the future.

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, a region 150 miles off of Cape Cod, includes a series of canyons – some deeper than the Grand Canyon – and seamounts, extinct volcanoes rising thousands of feet from the seafloor. The areas house a high diversity of marine species, some of which are rare or only recently discovered. Thousand-year-old coral communities line the deep-sea canyon walls, and the unique geographical formations provide habitats for marine life to thrive. In the water column above, rich food sources from plankton to forage fish support whales, sharks, sea turtle, seabirds, and more.

Protecting the Canyons and Seamounts would provide refuge to a myriad of species, conserve a vital and productive ecosystem, and help fuel many parts of New England’s economy. Designating the Canyons and Seamounts as a Marine National Monument is an essential step in building a healthy future for our region’s ocean ecosystems.

Since last fall, more than 300,000 signatures in support of permanently protecting these incredible ocean treasures have been collected and delivered to the White House. It’s clear that the people want President Obama to conserve ocean areas just as we’ve protected special land areas in America for more than 110 years.

We are asking President Obama to extend his legacy of conservation to the Atlantic Ocean, where no monuments exist.

We hope that President Obama moves swiftly to make this proposal a reality; and we will continue to call on him and future administrations to build upon this progress by designating one of New England’s biodiversity hotspots, Cashes Ledge, as a Marine National Monument.

Read the full letter from the Connecticut delegation to President Obama here, and more reactions from our coalition here.

Then,  to say “thank you” for his leadership!

Seamounts Species Spotlight: Bluefin Tuna

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 3 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

Just imagine a 10-foot long, steel blue, torpedo-shaped body darting through the water of the open ocean and it’s easy to understand why the Atlantic Bluefin tuna is at the top of the oceanic food chain.

This predator is one of the ocean’s most impressive swimmers, built for quick and calculated movements as its body is smooth with retractable fins, allowing it to minimize drag and maximize speed. Tuna also go far: some individuals have been observed making multiple migrations between the United States and Europe each year.

These world travelers spend their summers feasting upon herring and eels in the waters of the Gulf of Maine. At some 1,500 pounds, tuna prefer to swallow prey whole and are considered a very aggressive predator. To maximize vision (presumably helping with predatory ability), tuna are even partially warm-blooded, a rare trait for a fish.

Mating Grounds Discovered Near Canyons and Seamounts

Many details of the fish’s behavior were unknown until recently. A study released this year revealed the discovery and confirmation of a previously unknown mating ground in the “Slope Sea,” an area of ocean between the Gulf Stream and continental shelf, which includes much of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area. The area was identified after poppy seed-sized larvae were detected in the waters with further analysis confirming their birthplace.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the Atlantic Bluefin tuna’s close relative, Pacific Bluefin tuna, an incredibly popular and valuable commodity in places across Asia. In 2013, a Pacific Bluefin went for a record $1.76 million in Tokyo.

The Pacific Bluefin’s global fame has, unfortunately, spelled collapse for global stocks. All three species of Bluefin tuna – Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern – are at risk of collapse because of human predation. The Atlantic population has decreased by as much as 51 percent in just three generations.

As a completely migratory species, comprehensive management has proven difficult, with responsibility currently falling to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). Currently, there is effort being placed on monitoring and accurately reporting the origins of each landing along with strict catch limits.

As we continue to discover more about these powerful fish, it is important that we protect the areas that they rely on, such as their feeding and breeding grounds. The discovery of a North Atlantic breeding ground requires much more study so managers can learn more about how to better manage this species. Permanently protected the New England Canyons and Seamounts is an excellent step in the right direction.

Excerpt: The Potential of the Gulf of Maine

The following is an excerpt from a letter from the chairman of the board for Diversified Communications, Daniel Hildreth. Diversified Communications owns National Fisherman Magazine and other publications. The letter was published in the August 2016 issue of National Fisherman. 

Over the past year, Cashes Ledge and several canyons and seamounts on or near the southern edge of Georges Bank have been proposed as national monuments. We won’t know the outcome for sure until January 2017, but the question remains: Is there a need for a few carefully selected areas in the Gulf of Maine with permanent protection from natural resource use? I believe the answer is yes.

My family’s business, Diversified Communications, has served the commercial fishing and seafood industries for over 45 years, through the publication of National Fisherman, Pacific Marine Expo, and the Seafood Expos in Boston and Brussels. Our connections with the commercial fishing and seafood industries have been sources of inspiration and pride for us.

Because we are based in Maine, we are especially close to events in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, since 1969 when NF was first launched, many trends in environmental health, fish stocks and the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf of Maine have not been good. In the 1960s and early ’70s, groundfish stocks were overfished by foreign fleets. There was a rebound after passage of the Magnuson [Stevens] Act, but then a renewed decline in spawning biomass set in. Even now many stocks remain depleted, and the commercial fishing industry is, as well.

There have been meaningful steps toward rebuilding in recent years. The implementation of quotas has resulted in even more fishermen losing their livelihoods, but at least some stocks are healthy or rebuilding. Another source of encouragement has been the opening up of rivers, through dam removal and culvert replacement, allowing the potential rebuilding of forage fish such as alewives and blueback herring.

Still, the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and fisheries resources are far depleted from what they were centuries ago. We can’t go back in time, but what is the potential of the Gulf of Maine to support a healthy marine ecosystem and abundant fish stocks?

Perhaps places like Cashes Ledge can help answer that question. Because of its challenging topography and closure in the past dozen years, Cashes Ledge supports a unique and vibrant ecosystem. It’s known for healthy bottom flora and fauna, and diverse, abundant, and large-sized finfish. There is no other area in the Gulf of Maine that gives as good an example of what the ecosystem and fishery could look like in relatively natural conditions.

Read the full letter here. 

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.