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.

From the Ledge: Leg 1 Complete

This is the third in my series of reports from this year’s expedition to Cashes Ledge with Brian Skerry and Brown University biologist Jon Witman. Follow the expedition on Twitter for regular updates!

If you were following along with us on Twitter this weekend, you may have seen that we had to cut short our weekend expedition to Cashes Ledge. After a brilliant, sunny day on Saturday, we woke up to stormy seas and high winds Sunday morning. Due to the unexpected turn in weather, the captain of the ship quickly made the decision to pull anchor and head back to Boston in the early morning.

We slowly made our way out of the storm and the seas began to calm, and we arrived in Boston around 6:30pm. Time certainly seemed to move more slowly when the team wasn’t in and out of the water all day, but the travel day on the boat gave the team the opportunity to review its work from the previous diving days.

The photography team – Brian Skerry and Steve DeNeef – looked through their many pictures and video of the breathtaking and diverse wildlife at Cashes Ledge, and Dr. Jon Witman and his assistant Fiona began to analyze data. I also had the opportunity to interview Brian, Jon, and Steve on video about the trip and why Cashes Ledge deserves to be permanently protected as a marine national monument.

Even though we had to end the trip early, we’re excited that this was only Leg 1 of the expedition. The team hopes to head back out to Cashes Ledge via the R/V Connecticut very soon. It looks like poor weather may delay their departure this week, and although I won’t be on board this time, we will continue to keep you updated on the their status and progress.

We’re looking forward to what else the team will be able to capture during Leg 2!

 

Dive in on Cashes Ledge 3.0!

We are excited to announce that we have embarked upon a dive expedition this week, exploring the crown jewel of New England’s ocean – Cashes Ledge! We can’t wait to report to you from one of our most treasured special places, accompanied by our friend and partner, Brian Skerry, and Cashes Ledge expert scientist Dr. Jon Witman.

Unlike in years past, our research vessel, provided and operated by the Waitt Foundation, will take the 100-mile trip out to Cashes Ledge from Portsmouth, NH, and will remain at sea through May 30. During this time period, our talented team of scientists, photojournalists, and cinematographers will take full advantage of every opportunity to explore and document this place. Additionally, I will be highlighting the expedition live from the boat via social media! Be sure to follow Conservation Law Foundation and New England Ocean Odyssey on Facebook and Twitter to receive live updates.

On previous expeditions, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has captured breathtaking images of the kelp forest and marine wildlife at Cashes Ledge, and we are on the edge of our seats to see what critters he will come in contact with this time.

We are even more excited to share the expedition with Conservation Law Foundation and New England Ocean Odyssey followers, so that you can dive in with us to see the beauty of Cashes Ledge as well!

About Cashes Ledge

Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range in the heart of the Gulf of Maine. Its tallest peak, Ammen Rock, rises to within 40 feet of the surface. The strong currents and internal waves along the ledge mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water producing a biodiversity hotspot right in New England’s backyard. Atop the ledge you’ll find the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. The unique ecological conditions found at Cashes Ledge draw in a rich diversity of marine species ranging from bottom-dwelling sea stars, sea anemones, and purple sponges to fish like cod, wolfish, and bluefin tuna to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Campaign to Protect New England’s Ocean Treasures

Cashes Ledge is a truly unique area in New England’s ocean. It’s a refuge habitat for some of our most valuable and iconic species; it’s an underwater laboratory that scientists can use to better understand the effects of climate change; and it’s greatly vulnerable to human and ecological threats. For these reasons, Cashes Ledge deserves to be permanently protected as a Marine National Monument. In addition to following our dive expedition, be sure to follow our campaign to Protect New England’s Ocean Treasures.

Note: As always, trips to Cashes Ledge are weather dependent. We’ll be updating frequently, so be sure to check back in often!

VIDEO: “Cashes Ledge: Jewel of the Gulf of Maine”

Check out this new video from the Witman Lab at Brown University, including highlights from their research and stunning video footage of Cashes Ledge – the jewel of the Gulf of Maine. Evan Kovacs’ video captures a macro view of the Cashes Ledge seascape, and some of the marine species who call the rocky ridges their home.

We must save this beautiful, vital place in the Gulf of Maine. Despite our efforts to show what a spectacular place this is, the White House has said Cashes Ledge isn’t under consideration for a Monument at this time. We know that the science is in our corner, and that the majority of voices speaking up about our campaign to protect this place are resoundingly supportive.

Click here to send a message to your U.S. Senators. Tell them that a Marine National Monument designation without Cashes Ledge is unacceptable and leaves New England’s most precious marine resources at risk.

‘You never forget seeing your first whale’ – Zack Klyver of Bar Harbor Whale Watch on the impact of protected areas

Zack Klyver is head naturalist at Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. in Maine. Over his more than 25 years guiding whale watch tours, he says that the experience of seeing a whale for the first time is truly amazing – and is part of what makes Maine so popular to tourists.

Today, Klyver is seeing an ocean that is rapidly industrializing, posing more and more threats to whales – especially the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Watch the clip to see why he thinks protected areas are an important way to sustain the whale population – to help the whales and Maine’s economy.

 

See you at Sea Rovers 2016!

The Boston Sea Rovers dive show is coming up, March 5-6, 2016, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Danvers, MA.

Join us as we present our seminar on Saturday at 11 am – Cashes Ledge: The Yellowstone of the North Atlantic, led by Dr. Jon Witman, WHOI videographer Evan Kovacs, and CLF’s director of ocean conservation, Dr. Priscilla Brooks. At the seminar, we’ll share stunning film footage from a recent expedition to Cashes Ledge, as well as findings from new scientific research. Dive in with us as we explore this special place that needs permanent protection.

Boston Sea Rovers is a non-profit organization founded by SCUBA-lovers, dedicated to amplifying awareness and appreciation for the ocean. Each year, ocean lovers convene at the show to participate in a weekend of films, compelling seminars, useful workshops, and more.

For more information and to register to attend, visit the Sea Rovers website. (You can register for one or both days.)

And don’t forget to stop by our booth (#52) to check out Brian Skerry’s photographs of our beautiful New England ocean, get updates from our CLF oceans team, and take a photo with us to share your reasons for supporting our campaign to permanently protect Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts. We can’t wait to see you there!

Winter Home of Maine Puffins Revealed

Photo credit: NPS / Jim Pfeiffenberger

This piece was originally posted on Audubon.org. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

By Stephen Kress

Surprising migration takes puffins north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then south to underwater “coral canyons and seamounts” and Cashes Ledge off New England

Until this summer, the winter home of Maine puffins was largely unknown, but that has suddenly changed with revelations discovered this year.

The background leading up to this year’s discovery demonstrates the value of perseverance. In 2011, two first generation puffin geolocators were recovered from birds tagged at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in 2009 (geolocators do not transmit data and require recapture of the bird to download data).

The tags revealed a northward journey after the nesting season to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and north to the Labrador Sea, before a southward movement to the edge of the continental shelf for the remainder of the winter. This was big news–the first hint of the puffin’s then mysterious winter home. But these were just two birds and neither bird nested in subsequent years. This aroused suspicion that winter movements also could have been affected by the devices.

The quest for the puffin’s winter range continued in 2010-2012 when 38 smaller, new generation tags were attached to puffin leg bands. Although 30 of these were recovered and puffin behavior appeared normal, none contained data because of manufacturing defects. Despite this huge disappointment, 26 improved tags were attached to puffins in 2013 and 2014. By the summer of 2015, 20 of these were recovered and 17 contained useful data. These tags revealed a remarkable story.

The tagged puffins travelled northward in August to the western Gulf of St. Lawrence–a region known for abundant forage fish. The geolocators also showed that as days shortened, the puffins began heading south to the U.S. continental shelf–well offshore from New York and New Jersey where they spent the rest of the winter–before arriving back in Maine by early April. The exact routes remain a mystery.

Puffin on Deep Blue Sea at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Stephen Kress
Puffin on Deep Blue Sea at Eastern Egg Rock. Photo by Stephen Kress

The areas most frequented during the winter months were about 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod–including an area known as New England’s “coral canyons and seamounts.” This vast, largely unexplored area includes canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, along with submerged mountains (seamounts) noted for colorful corals, some as large as small trees. Puffins are likely attracted to the region because of productive upwelling currents that offer abundant food–the same conditions that favor whales, porpoise, tuna, sailfish, and seabirds. Cashes Ledge, another underwater mount inside the Gulf of Maine, was also popular with puffins as it is for whales and other sea-life.

The discovery that puffins winter over these canyons and seamounts and Cashes Ledge provides another reason to protect these areas from fishing, mining, and energy development. An initiative is now underway to protect these important areas as the first Atlantic marine national monument in the United States. These discoveries were first shared by Project Puffin biologists this past week with a poster presentation at the 43rd annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group.

This research was made possible by donations from Project Puffins supporters, especially Bill and Maryanne Perks, Shirley Egan and the late Robert Wanner.

Learn more about these fascinating seabirds at projectpuffin.audubon.org

Right Whales and Cashes Ledge: How to Make a Good Thing Last

By Tricia Jedele

In late January, North Atlantic right whales scored a big win when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expanded the critical habitat for the endangered whale from 4,500 square nautical miles to 28,000 square nautical miles.

The original area included only a portion of Cape Cod Bay and an area east of Nantucket near the Great South Channel. This major expansion adds almost all of the Gulf of Maine, east to Georges Bank, and south all the way to Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Gulf of Maine expansion includes Cashes Ledge – an area known for its rich biodiversity and abundance of fish and marine mammals and a place that CLF has been fighting to permanently protect for years.

This is great news for the North Atlantic right whale – the world’s most endangered large whale – and for those of us who care about saving it. Expanding the whale’s critical habitat means that federal agencies are thinking more systemically about what the right whale needs not just to survive but to once again thrive – designating not only places where the whales congregate to forage, but also the places that are critical for mating and calving.

This expansion is also a terrific example of ocean use planning in action. Before announcing the final decision, NOAA, through its National Marine Fisheries Service, called for public dialogue and input about the proposed expansion. It also allowed for new information to guide and influence its decisions around how to manage and permit other activities (like clean energy projects or industrial exploration) in the expanded areas going forward.

Critical Habitat is Good; Permanent Protection is Better – and Necessary

Right whale calf and mother

Right whale calf and mother. ©Brian Skerry

According to NOAA, calling an area “critical habitat” means that it contains physical or biological features essential to the conservation of a particular species – and those features may require special management considerations or protection.

Federal agencies looking to issue permits or companies seeking permits have to work with NOAA to avoid or reduce impacts from their activities on critical habitats. But, a critical habitat designation isn’t as protective as it sounds. It’s more like a “caution” sign than a stop sign. The designation doesn’t establish a refuge for the right whale or its food sources. And it doesn’t specifically put the area off limits or dictate that certain activities cannot occur.

For endangered species, functional critical habitat is the key to survival. We understand this concept well on land. One ongoing success story is China’s giant panda. People around the world are working to secure permanent protections for its habitats to ensure survival of the species. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has worked with the Chinese government to protect 27,000 acres of Pingwu County for the benefit of just 10 giant pandas.

Today, approximately 1,800 giant pandas remain worldwide. In comparison, just over 500 individual North Atlantic right whales are struggling to survive. Yet we have failed to to permanently protect even one acre of the habitat it needs to recover.

Considering that we know where some of the areas so critical to the North Atlantic right whale are, we need to ask why we’ve been successful in protecting lands critical for terrestrial species, but we haven’t given this same level of protection – or attention – to marine species. Cashes Ledge, a small area in the Gulf of Maine, is uniformly recognized as a scientific marine treasure, and already closed to most fishing. Permanently protecting this area would have little negative impact – yet the positive impact protection might have on the North Atlantic right whale could mean the difference between the species’ survival or its extinction.

Conservation Law Foundation believes that it is time to embrace the familiar land-based conservation principles and apply them, based on the best available scientific information, to permanently protect some of the most impressive and ecologically important ocean habitats and resources in the North Atlantic.

Dramatically expanding the critical habitat area for North Atlantic right whales was without question a good thing – and so was including Cashes Ledge in that designated area.

Let’s now take a good thing and make it even better by permanently protecting Cashes Ledge. Otherwise, this designation will just be a good thing that wasn’t quite good enough.