Celebrating New England Lobsters on National Lobster Day

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

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

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

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

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

An industry under threat

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

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

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

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

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

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

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

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

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

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

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

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


Final Hours to Protect Ocean Treasures – Please Share!

A cunner swims through healthy kelp forest; Cashes Ledge, Gulf of Maine.Today is the last day to submit comments to the Obama Administration letting them know why you support a Marine National Monument in New England. If you haven’t yet, please sign our petition to add your voice!

We have just hours left to show President Obama that there is overwhelming public support for permanently protecting these special ocean places. Can you also take a moment to share the petition (or this blog post) with friends and family, so we can deliver as many signatures as possible? Find it at http://www.clf.org/monumentnow.

Over the last few years, we have explored and learned about the Cashes Ledge Area in the Gulf of Maine, and why it’s so special. The biodiversity and scientific importance of this place has been well-documented, and we’re so grateful that you have been on this journey with us! Tonight, our efforts to raise awareness and support for permanent protection for the Cashes Ledge Area culminate at a NOAA public meeting in Providence, RI, where the agency will hear from people like you about why this area deserves Monument protection.

Our growing coalition has designated the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts as the areas in most need of protection. If you are in the Providence area, we encourage you to attend!

NOAA Public Meeting on New England Canyons and Seamounts
Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, from 6-8 p.m.
Providence Marriott Downtown
1 Orms St, Providence, RI. Sessions/College/Canal Room

Mussels on Cashes Ledge

Fish Friday Finale

Over the course of the summer, we’ve been showcasing some of the fish (and other species) that make their home in New England’s ocean waters: Some of these species are endangered and in need of protections (see #SaveOceanTreasures), and some are considered underutilized because of low demand. Others are just fun or silly (or silly-looking!).

One of the main goals of the New England Ocean Odyssey project is to unlock the mysteries of the ocean: What creatures live there? What important habitats are out there, and why should we care about them? We want to let people know about this whole other world that exists just beyond what we can see. To that end, we hope you’ve found this series fun and informative, and we look forward to providing you with more “Creature Features” in the future!!

Now, in case you missed any – a Fish Friday Wrap-Up:

Atlantic_Salmon_Credit_TimothyKnepp_FWSSOS: Save Our (Atlantic) Salmon!


The Basking Shark: A Modern Marine Mystery Basking Shark


The Atlantic Wolffish – Antifreeze Included 1.13_Matthew_Lawrence



Silver Hake: A Scrumptious and Sustainable Cod SubstituteSilverHake



Hooded seal The Hooded Seal: Battling Foes with a Bladder Nose!


Atlantic Halibut – Don’t Let the Googly Eyes Fool YouAtlanticHalibut


Acadian Redfish: Consume Regularly for a Healthy OceanAcadian_Redfish_Credit_NOAA_Fishwatch



20091114 AT SEA : FRENCH POLYNESIA A juvenile oceaninc white tip shark swims past an apparently abandoned fish aggregating device (FAD) made of fishing nets, buoys and bamboo sticks, floats at sea in French Polynesian Waters off the Marquesas Islands at LAT 09:46.3 SOUTH / LONG 142 38.4 WEST. Greenpeace is calling for a global ban on FADs. GREENPEACE / ALEX HOFFORD Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, the Comeback Shark 


A Rollercoaster of Demand for Atlantic Pollock Atlantic Pollock


Fish Friday: The Atlantic Wolffish – Antifreeze Included

It’s FRIDAY! And you know what that means – time for another fishy feature. This week, we’re talking about a deep ocean predator, the Atlantic Wolffish. AtlanticWolffish

What Big Teeth You Have!

It’s clear where the wolffish gets its name. Those canines kind of remind you of…an actual wolf, right? But those visible chompers aren’t even the wolffish’s most useful dental feature; they use three sets of crushing teeth on the roofs of their mouths to grind down their hard-shelled prey – so hard that their teeth fall out every year after spawning and are replaced by a new set! Wolf AtlanticWolffish

Which one’s the wolf, and which one’s the wolffish? Images via National Park Service (left) and Jonathan Bird (right).

Atlantic wolffish are voracious predators, feeding on mollusks, crustaceans, and echinoderms (think urchins and sea stars). So voracious, in fact, that they serve as keystone species in North Atlantic food webs because they help limit populations of sea urchins and green crabs.

Without the wolffish around, urchin and green crab populations could explode, which would have serious negative impacts on the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

Unique Biology

Can you imagine swimming in 30º to 50ºF (-1.2º to 10.2 ºC) water? That’s cold. The Atlantic wolffish prefers depths of 250 to 400 ft (80 to 120 m), so they live in water that frigid. How do they do it? No, they don’t wear wetsuits; they have something even better – concentrations of an antifreeze compound in their blood! And that’s not the only thing that makes these crazy creatures so unique. Unlike most fish species, which “broadcast spawn” (females release thousands of eggs into the water, and males compete to fertilize them externally), Atlantic wolffish pair up and fertilize the female’s eggs internally (much in the same way mammals mate). The female incubates the eggs for four to nine months (depending on the water temperature) before laying them in large clusters, which the male then aggressively protects for about four months until they hatch. AtlanticWolffishPair

Image via Jonathan Bird.

Greenland sharks, Atlantic cod, haddock, gray seals, and even spotted wolffish prey on pelagic Atlantic wolffish larvae. And occasionally, the larvae may resort to eating each other . . . not the healthiest sibling relationships. Those that survive to be early juveniles transition to benthic habitats, where they prefer complex substrates such as rocky outcrops and kelp beds. They can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 m), weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kg), and live to be up to twenty years old. Wolffish are slow-growing and don’t reach sexual maturity until about age six, which can make them susceptible to fishing pressure, as stocks recover slowly.

Populations in Peril

Since the 1980s, populations of this deep sea creature have been consistently dropping, and average fish size has decreased by 50%. It’s not like there’s a commercial wolffish fishery – so what’s happening?

The biggest threat to Atlantic wolffish is otter trawling. Wolffish are caught as bycatch, indiscriminately snagged by enormous nets intended for commercially harvested species. To add insult to injury, these nets scrape along the seafloor, crushing fragile corals, disturbing rocky outcrops and kelp beds, and re-suspending bottom sediments that damage the fish’s gills and potentially release settled toxic heavy metals.

Atlantic wolffish were historically found from the Gulf of Maine all the way down to New Jersey. However, after decades of habitat destruction, there are only three populations remaining: the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and the Great South Channel (a passage between Nantucket and Georges Bank). To address population decline, NOAA identified the Atlantic wolffish as “Species of Concern” in 2004 and manages the species under Amendment 16 to the Northeast Fisheries Management Plan. But is that enough?

The fact that current population estimates don’t exist is a huge cause for concern. Direct studies on stock structure are a gaping piece of the puzzle in understanding and managing Atlantic wolffish populations. We know they were declining dramatically until 2009, the last year for which data is available. We need to know more.

Canada has protected their stocks through the country’s Species at Risk Act, but the U.S. has yet to follow suit. In 2009, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied CLF’s petition for the Atlantic wolffish to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. What are we waiting for? Let’s get the conversation started about this crazy, rare, toothy, weird, unique deep sea dweller. We want to protect the Atlantic wolffish!

Fish Friday: The Basking Shark, a Modern Marine Mystery

T.G.I.F.F. – thank goodness it’s Fish Friday! This week, we’re diving in with an elusive gentle giant, the Basking SharkBasking Shark

Sharks have been ruling the media lately. From Great White sightings off of Cape Cod to mysterious appearances in wooded backyards to the recent string of encounters along the coast of North Carolina, it seems that sharks have been everywhere, just in time for the annual explosion of shark media – the always entertaining, awe-inspiring, and extraordinarily sensationalist Discovery Channel Shark Week.

This week, sharks, a diverse and ecologically vital clade, have been labeled as “ninjas,” “monsters,” and “serial killers” – kind of aggressive descriptions, right? While some species do serve as apex predators, maintaining delicate ecosystems from the top of the food web, it’s important to remember that some sharks, such as this week’s feature, also maintain ecological balance by feeding at the base of the food web. Basking sharks aren’t interested in seals or tuna. They’ve got much smaller prey on their menu—tiny fish, fish eggs, and zooplankton.

It may be difficult to believe that a creature often mistaken for a Great White is actually a filter feeder. These gentle giants are estimated to grow up to 12 meters (exceeding 30 feet), but they survive on itty bitty prey consumed in massive quantities. Named for their tendency to “bask” on the surface of the water, basking sharks swim open-mouthed, passively feeding as their gill rakers act as sieves, preventing prey from passing through their gill slits.


Disappearing Act

Basking sharks are still a bit of a mystery to scientists. We know they roam the cooler waters of the Northern Atlantic and Pacific during the summer months, but for decades, the world’s second largest fish disappeared every winter.

In 2009, Gregory Skomal from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and colleagues discovered that, during winter months, New England basking sharks travel south at depths between 200 and 1,000 meters (600 and 3,000 feet). While some tagged sharks stopped in Florida, others traveled as far south as the Caribbean Sea, or even the mouth of the Amazon River! The migration has Skomal questioning previous beliefs about basking shark population structure: “What were thought to be regional stocks may in fact belong to a single, oceanwide population.”

Why do the sharks make this annual trek? Skomal suggests that they follow plankton to warmer waters in the winter months. “But why do they move all the way to Brazil?” Skomal asks. “There is plenty of food for them in northern Florida.” One possibility is that they migrate south to find nursery grounds. “We still have no idea where they give birth,” says Skomal.

Endangered Mammoth Migrators

While we still have a lot to learn about basking sharks, we do know that their populations are dwindling. In 2000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the North Pacific and Northeast Atlantic populations as endangered and the species itself as vulnerable.

The main reason for population decline is fishery overexploitation. For centuries, basking sharks were caught for their liver oil (to be used for lighting and industry), their skin (to be used as leather), their flesh (for food and fishmeal), and their fins (which are highly valuable in international trade, especially in East Asia). The basking shark’s exceptionally slow recovery rate – females are believed to sexually mature between 16 and 20 years old – makes them extremely vulnerable to overfishing.

Today, almost all basking shark fisheries around the world are closed. The only significant trade is in bycatch from New Zealand blue grenadier fisheries. Basking sharks are protected by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, the European Union, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and numerous national governments, including the United States federal government.

You can help!

Basking sharks are a common sight in our waters. Dr. Jon Witman from Brown University has spotted the sharks at Cashes Ledge, and there have already been reports this year of sightings off the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine.

Also, the New England Basking Shark and Ocean Sunfish Project is working to better understand the biology and ecology of these mammoth migrators, and they need help from citizen scientists like you! If you spot one of these gentle giants, be sure to report your sighting. The more data collected, the more we can learn and help protect!

And don’t worry, this rounded fin means you’re good.

Basking shark off the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Image via Antony Stanely.





This pointier one means you might want to call in for backup . . .
A white shark in Salt Pont, Naushon Island, MA. Image via MA Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Welcome to Our First Fish Friday! This Week: Atlantic Sturgeon

The New England Ocean Odyssey team would like to welcome you to our new weekly series all about New England’s special ocean species! While we will primarily feature the region’s exceptional fish, we can’t guarantee that we won’t throw in the occasional marine mammal, reptile, or invertebrate. We couldn’t possibly resist discussing Atlantic harbor seals, Kemp’s ridley turtles, and American lobsters. So join us every Friday to learn about the ecologically essential, economically critical, and craziest-looking sea creatures in New England!

Let’s dive into this week’s feature: the threatened, yet resilient Atlantic sturgeon

This fish species looks like a creature from prehistoric times, and for good reason. Sturgeons (family Acipenseridae) are a group of primitive fishes that emerged about 70 million years ago during the Upper Cretaceous epoch. In fact, some of the best-preserved fossils were discovered in dinosaur stomachs! While sturgeons today have cartilaginous skeletons (as opposed to their bony ancestors), they have retained many primitive features. These include bony plates (called scutes) instead of scales, long “whiskers” (called barbels) covered in taste buds that dangle from the underside of their snouts, and the ability to shoot out their tubular mouths to inhale prey1.

Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) can be distinguished from other sturgeon species by their large size, small mouth, and distinct snout shape. They range from dark blue and black to olive green on their backs and have lighter bellies. Adults can measure up to 800 pounds and may reach 14 feet long!

They have been aged up to 60 years old and generally reach sexual maturity between 10 and 35 years old, although southern populations may mature faster. Males typically spawn every 1 to 5 years, while females will spawn every 2 to 5 years.

Human Threats

Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in fresh water, spend a majority of their adult lives in the ocean, and return to fresh water to spawn. In the spring (May and June in northern waters), Atlantic sturgeon migrate from their oceanic ranges into rivers along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Labrador, Canada, where they spawn at the border of fresh and salt water. This dependence on estuarine habitat, in combination with late spawning age, makes Atlantic sturgeon particularly vulnerable to human threats such as dams, water pollution, and overfishing.

In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the federal government implemented a coast-wide moratorium on commercial harvest that remains in place today. While this prevents intentional harvest of Atlantic sturgeon, many factors continue to threaten stocks up and down the coast: dams prevent migration to spawning grounds, dredging ruins spawning areas altogether, water pollution (often due to coastal development) hinders juvenile development, and other commercial fisheries accidentally harvest Atlantic sturgeon as bycatch.

To address these additional threats, NOAA listed five populations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2012. The Gulf of Maine population was listed as threatened, while the Chesapeake Bay, New York Bight, Carolina, and South Atlantic populations were listed as endangered.

With money made available by the ESA listing, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service was able to invest in research to determine human threats to Atlantic sturgeon populations and devise mitigation strategies, such as nets that will allow sturgeon to escape while still capturing smaller fish.


In the Gulf of Maine, multiple dams have been or will be removed, allowing Atlantic sturgeon to return to their historical spawning grounds. There have recently been reports of potentially higher catch-per-unit-effort than in the past – a sign that the population may be recovering.

There are still a lot of cards stacked against the Atlantic sturgeon; we have much left to learn about their distribution, and, at the moment, NOAA has little control over when and where dredging occurs. But, as conservation writer and editor Ted Williams says, “Maybe the greatest value of the Endangered Species Act — greater even than information it generates about how and where animals live and the threats they face — is the knowledge that it’s not too late to save them…Atlantic sturgeon didn’t make it for 70 million years without being resilient.”

Sammi Dowdell is the Ocean Conservation Program Summer Intern for Conservation Law Foundation.

Georges Bank on the Habitat Chopping Block

The New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Habitat Committee continues to show complete disregard for habitat protection. Up for consideration at the Committee’s Monday meeting was an industry-introduced proposal to open critical areas of Georges Bank as part of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. The proposal was originally designed to allow access to the Northern edge of Georges Bank for scalloping.

The discussion that played out reinforced the notion that the management body tasked with protecting essential fish habitat in New England is driven instead by short-term industry interests and willing to sacrifice important ecological areas in order to accommodate fishing interests.

The Habitat Committee ultimately voted to the full Council as its preferred alternative for the Georges Bank area a revised and further weakened version of the industry’s proposal, which establishes two habitat closures along the southern edge (a western and eastern area) closed to mobile-bottom tending gear and a “mortality closure” over the scallop and vulnerable habitat rich northern edge. A mortality closure can be opened at the discretion of the Council and NMFS when the population of fish that it was intended to protect no longer need such catch protections

When a commenter pointed out to the Committee that the “mortality closure” comprised 80% gravel and cobble bottom habitat – some of the most vulnerable, high quality essential fish habitat according to NEFMC’s own data – the Committee moved quickly to conjure up a new name for the area. Sadly, no wordsmithing could disguise the meaning of intent of the Committee to ensure that damaging scallop dredges would gain access to this most vulnerable of habitats. In a move that again directly contradicted the Council’s own science, the Committee leapt to relocate the western habitat protected area from a region comprised mostly of cobble and gravel bottom to one dominated by sand. The Council has repeatedly taken the position in this years-long process that their science indicates that sandy bottom on Georges Bank has among the lowest values as essential fish habitat.

With this as preferred alternative going into the June full Council meeting, Georges Bank faces a drastic reduction in overall protected habitat area, rolling back decades of habitat recovery in some of the areas now proposed to be wide open to all fishing gears. Disregarding its own science accumulated over the innumerable years this amendment has been underway, the Council seems positioned to cash in its habitat protected areas in favor of short term economic gain, while risking long term viability of New England’s fishing future.

The Council meets in the third week of June to finalize its votes on the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. After the June vote, the Council will submit its proposed amendment to NOAA for final approval or disapproval. At this point, the public will have the opportunity to weigh in with the agency about how the Omnibus Habitat Amendment moves ocean habitat protections backwards and endangers the future of our fisheries and the communities that depend on them.

Image: A sea scallop and tunicate colonies encrusting pebble gravel habitat on Northern Georges Bank. Photo by USGS.