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. 

An Ocean Warming: Sea Level Rise

In a previous post, we explored changing ocean chemistry through the phenomenon known as ocean acidification, and the effects of it on the people and species that call the Gulf of Maine home.

However, there is another important piece of the puzzle. As ocean water becomes warmer and more acidic, it expands and swells. This increase in volume, combined with fast-melting arctic sea and land ice, causes substantial changes in sea level – which can wreak havoc on our coastlines.

Numerous studies have shown that the East Coast, ranging from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine, is experiencing this phenomenon, known widely as sea level rise, at a rate three to four times faster than the global average. In fact, researchers refer to the region as a “unique 1,000-kilometer-long hotspot” where the impacts will be “disproportionately felt.” For New England especially, sea level rise spells trouble because of the vulnerability of our coastal cities, utilities, and infrastructure – not to mention our strong dependence on our coastal economies.

Unquestionably, the threat of sea level rise demands our attention because frankly, this isn’t an issue to be discussed and acted upon at some point in the future – it is happening now.

Signs of sea level rise, including incidences of “sunny-day flooding” and storm surges, have shown that the threat is real and imminent. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the coasts of New Jersey and New York, we saw the massive destruction that sea level rise and strengthened storm surges can have on a city.

Fortunately, Boston missed the brunt of the storm, but having seen its impacts, it’s clear that Boston cannot wait until it is too late or until a disaster like super-storm Sandy strikes to begin planning.

It is paramount that we have the necessary groundwork laid out so Boston, and New England at large, is able to adapt to the issue. Through the creation and implementation of forward-thinking policies, the consequences of sea level rise can be lessened. In most cases, with adequate energy and resources devoted to the issue, we will be able to anticipate some of what is to come and preemptively address the areas in which attention is immediately needed.

Some research and planning is already happening. Sea Change Boston has an interactive map which shows a variety of possible scenarios for what Boston might look like – and which areas might be underwater – depending upon the incidence of major storms over time. This map is based upon projections that global sea levels are projected to rise 1-2 feet by 2050. And the Boston Harbor Association put together additional maps showing the impacts of sea level rise to Boston and the surrounding areas if the sea level rises 2.5 feet, 5 feet, or 7.5 feet.

With the Gulf of Maine warming at a rate faster than 99 percent of other ocean areas, we in New England must be prepared with policies focusing on protection, adaptation, and/or accommodation to sea level rise, all of which will be critical in shaping how we respond to this imminent threat. It is only a matter of time before a rising sea level will begin impacting our infrastructure, transportation, and even our safety.

 

 

Shark-Saving Legislation Proposed During Discovery’s “Shark Week”

Just in time for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, a team of United States Senators, led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), has introduced legislation seeking to eliminate U.S. involvement in the global shark fin market.

The bipartisan Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016 aims to protect important shark populations by banning the commercial trade of fins in the United States and by increasing enforcement measures to the existing finning ban. The Senators hope these actions will provide a platform from which the United States can advocate for comprehensive global measures in the future.

The move to ban domestic shark finning began when President Bill Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act in 2000, which made it illegal for United States fishermen to engage in shark finning – but left a significant loophole by not discussing fin trading specifically. Since then, eleven states and three U.S. territories – including Massachusetts –have implemented comprehensive finning bans that close this loophole.

What is Shark Finning?

Shark finning is a brutal practice that occurs when the fins of a shark are cut from the animal and kept for sale while the rest of the shark is tossed back in the water, incapacitated and left to die or be eaten by a predator.

The fins are particularly valued for medicinal purposes as well as for the key ingredient of shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy and status symbol. The price for a single bowl of soup can cost up to $100, making the global fin trade highly profitable despite being increasingly controversial.

At Risk from a Daunting Predator: Humans

All shark species, including the highly endangered scalloped hammerhead, are at risk of falling prey to shark finning. To make matters worse, recent estimates say global shark populations are decreasing at a rate of between 6.4 to 7.9 percent annually. This startling decline is largely caused by finning, overfishing, and from the animals being accidentally caught as bycatch.

Massachusetts is among the U.S. states advocating against shark finning, where there has been a heightened interest in shark research and conservation in part due to the return of great white sharks during recent years.

Groups like the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have been studying New England’s sharks for decades. The Massachusetts Shark Research Program’s shark-tagging research recently resurfaced in the news with the return of Scratchy, the Great White Shark, to Cape Cod’s shores.

Civic Interest in New England

During his tenure as a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts, Secretary John Kerry was a vocal supporter of the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, signed into law in 2011. The act gained bipartisan support and mandated that shark landings must be brought to shore with fins attached, thereby strengthening the Shark Finning Prohibition Act.

And in 2014, nine-year-old Sean Lesniak wrote to his State Representative, David M. Nangle, with a simple request: to allow him to share his passion for sharks with the Massachusetts House and tell them why they were worth saving. In doing so, Lesniak lent his young voice to a long-running conversation about why the Bay State should protect its marine resources. Gaining bipartisan support, the bill successfully banned the possession and sale of shark fins, and was signed by Governor Deval Patrick in July 2014.

Lesniak’s story is a good reminder that civic engagement and education are important conservation tools, and that when used effectively, can help ensure that shark populations are saved – and that events like Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

With the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016, the United States Senate has the opportunity to elevate global awareness of this issue and make shark conservation a more concrete reality. Contact your Senator today to ask him or her to support this legislation.

 

 

Saving Cashes Ledge: A Diver’s Perspective

In the summer of 2014, Lisa Smith picked up her Sunday Boston Globe and was taken aback by the beautiful images that graced the cover: waving forests of kelp, a rocky sea floor, and inquisitive fish who live at Cashes Ledge.

A diver for more than 9 years, Smith was immediately drawn in by the wonder: How could this tropical-looking habitat be in New England?

A Boston-area lawyer who works on peaceful dispute resolution, mostly in divorce law, Smith started diving as a way to enjoy the natural environment with her young son, who had requested diving lessons. She’s done most of her diving here in New England, where it’s not typical to see the gold, emerald, and red hues of an undulating kelp forest, or a uniquely red-colored cod. So she knows firsthand that Cashes Ledge is something special.

Smith wouldn’t normally consider herself a conservationist – her volunteer work typically revolves around human relationship issues, including domestic violence. But after seeing the images of Cashes Ledge, and learning more about the ways in which it continues to be at risk, she became active in the campaign to permanently protect this treasure.

Paying it Forward

When it comes to protecting Cashes Ledge, Smith says that from her perspective, it’s about preserving the country’s most important places, like America has done for more than a century.

“We have a responsibility to continue paying it forward,” Smith said. “Our parents and their parents were part of the generations that protected many important lands so that we can enjoy them today. And now we have a responsibility to protect our oceans for our children – and their children.”

Smith says she doesn’t want us to take for granted what’s under the surface; that diving in special places like this helps people feel a kind of connectedness and peacefulness that normal life typically doesn’t afford. The lasting physical and mental health benefits she’s attained from experiencing nature in this way, she says, are immeasurable – and that’s why special places like Cashes Ledge must be preserved for future generations.

A “Snow White” Experience 

Smith says she’s described deep-sea diving to her non-diving friends and family in this way: “It’s like that cartoon of Snow White, where she interacts with the creatures are all around her. They aren’t afraid of her. It’s magical.”

When we walk through the woods, she says, creatures hide from us. But underwater, they are all right there in front of us – we can be close to so many animals who watch us with curiosity but aren’t afraid of our presence. “It’s an idealized, almost unreal situation,” Smith says. “It’s really amazing.”

In preserving our natural resources at Cashes Ledge, we wouldn’t be initiating a ‘pay it forward’ movement: we’d be simply continuing one.

“We need to continue this path of conservation that was started before,” Smith said. “It shouldn’t stop with us. We need to keep this tradition going.”

Take Action Today – then like us on Facebook to follow the campaign.

Sea Rovers 2016: That’s a Wrap!

Last weekend, divers from across the region attended the Sea Rovers dive show in Danvers, MA. Throughout the two-day show, we had conversations with hundreds of people interested in learning more about our campaign to protect special places in the Atlantic.

At our coalition’s booth, we received more than 150 comment cards and captured many photos of supporters voicing why they believe that Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts should be permanently protected. Here are a few of the highlights (Click here to see the entire Facebook album!):

“#SaveOceanTreasures because its an unseen world important to whales, sharks, and all things fishy!!”
Sea Rovers 3
“#SaveOceanTreasures because they’re critical for the North Atlantic ecosystem!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evan Kovacs at Sea Rovers
Undersea cinematographer Evan Kovacs shows video footage from a recent expedition to Cashes Ledge

On Saturday, we were fortunate to present to a packed room at our seminar, “Cashes Ledge: The Yellowstone of the Atlantic,” which featured new film footage from cinematographer Evan Kovacs, as well as an overview of the scientific importance of Cashes Ledge by Dr. Jon Witman of Brown University. CLF’s Dr. Priscilla Brooks wrapped things up with an overview of why these areas need permanent protection now – and what supporters can do to help.

Jon Witman at Sea Rovers
Dr. Jon Witman gave the compelling scientific case for protecting this ecologically important area

Over the span of the two-day conference, the enthusiasm and passion for protecting undersea treasures was evident, with many attendees expressing the desire to be able to dive in such an amazing place someday.

We hope President Obama will come through on his Administration’s stated goal of protecting more ocean habitat before his term ends. Because of that, we’re committed to showing the breadth and depth of support we have to save these ocean treasures.

Dr. Priscilla Brooks spoke about Dr. Sylvia Earle's dive at Cashes Ledge -- and how supporters can get involved to help save this special place
Dr. Priscilla Brooks spoke about Dr. Sylvia Earle’s dive at Cashes Ledge — and how supporters can get involved to help save this special place

Will you join us? “Like” our Facebook page today to stay in the loop about the campaign – and be the first to know when we have opportunities to take action to save these special places.

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.

Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine
Cod today.
2036?
2036?

Imagine it’s 20 years from now, and your grandchild is about to head to bed – but first, she wants to hear a favorite bedtime story, “the one about the fish.” You pull it off the shelf – Mark Kurlansky’s The Cod’s Tale – and begin reading. Unbidden, her eyes widen at the vivid illustrations of the fish with a single chin whisker, at how it has millions of babies, and at how it gave birth to this country.

Every time you read her the story, she asks the same question: “Can we go catch a cod tomorrow?” Every time, you have to tell her there aren’t any more cod in New England. And, every time she asks: “Why?” But you never really have a good answer for her.

Farfetched? Maybe. But unfortunately, local extinction of New England’s Atlantic cod population is no longer out of the realm of possibility.

No Happy Ending in Sight for Cod
The crisis in New England’s cod fishery was once again on the agenda at the New England Fishery Management Council’s December meeting in Portland, Maine. And once again, managers failed to take the basic actions needed for a concerted effort to restore this iconic fish.

In addition to the collapse of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine, New England is facing even greater declines of cod on Georges Bank, the historically important fishing area east of Cape Cod.

The outlook for cod keeps getting worse, and the “actions” taken by the Council are so unlikely to make a difference that we must continue our call to save cod.

The Worst of the Worst
Some recent analyses have concluded that the cod population on Georges Bank is the lowest ever recorded – roughly 1 percent of what scientists would consider a healthy population. Other estimates put the population at only about 3 to 5 percent of the healthy target. The cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is hovering for the second year in a row at roughly 3 percent of the targeted healthy population.

At its meeting last week, the Council did set new, lower catch limits for the severely depleted Georges Bank cod, but, true to form, those limits don’t go far enough. The Council is clearly in denial about the state of this fishery. If there is even a chance the number is 1 percent, this should be cause for major distress among Council members and fishermen alike.

The Council’s actions (or, really, lack of action) leave me wondering, again, whether anyscience would ever be “enough” to compel them to halt the fishing of cod entirely.

Habitat Loss Adds Fuel to the Fire
Astoundingly, the Council also decided earlier this year to strip protection for important cod habitat on Georges Bank – amounting to a loss of some 81 percent of the formerly protected cod habitat.

To recover, depleted fish populations need large areas protected from fishing and fishing gears; they need protected habitat where they can find food and shelter and reproduce; and they need large areas where female cod can grow old and reproduce prolifically. However, our fisheries managers – who are entrusted with safeguarding these precious resources for future generations as well as for current fishermen – ignore this science and continue to stubbornly deny the potential scope of this problem.

This is an especially irresponsible stance in light of climate change. Not only are New England’s cod struggling to recover from decades of overfishing and habitat degradation, now the rapid rise in the region’s sea temperatures is further stressing their productivity. Protected habitats help marine species survive ecological stresses like warming waters.

If a Cod Fish Dies But No One Records It, Did It Ever Really Exist?
As if matters couldn’t get worse, the Council also voted to cut back significantly on the numbers of observers that groundfishing boats would have to have on-board to record what fish are actually coming up in their nets. This is little more than the Council’s blessing of unreported discards of cod and flounder and other depleted fish.

We should be protecting more of these areas, not fewer; we should be doing more for these iconic fish, not less. So why is the Council making it so much harder for cod to recover? Perhaps it is simply contrary to human nature to expect the Council’s fishermen members to impose harsh measures on themselves when the benefits may only be seen by future generations. Perhaps federal fishery councils comprising active fishermen only work well with healthy fisheries.

Federal officials at NOAA Fisheries will have the final say on these Council decisions to strip habitat protections, cutback on monitoring, and continue fishing on cod. We can only hope those officials will start taking the tough but necessary actions, giving New Englanders at least a semblance of hope that our grandchildren will be able to catch a codfish, not just read about one in a book.