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.

A Call for Protections

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of MaineThe following was originally published in National Fisherman.

The Gulf of Maine is warming fast — faster than almost any other ocean area in the world. To say this is alarming is an understatement, and action is needed today to permanently protect large areas of the ocean, which scientists say is one of the best buffers against the disastrous effects of climate change.

To that end, a diverse group of ma­rine-oriented businesses, hundreds of marine scientists, aquaria, conservation organizations and members of the public are calling on the Obama administration to designate the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as the first Marine National Monuments in the Atlantic.

Conservation Law Foundation has worked for years to permanently protect the remarkable Cashes Ledge area. This biodiversity hotspot provides refuge for a stunning array of ocean wildlife — from cod to endangered right whales, bluefin tuna to Atlantic wolffish — and a rare lush kelp forest. The New England canyons and seamounts similarly shelter an incredible breadth of sea life, including spectacular ancient coral formations. Public support is widespread and growing. In September, more than 600 people attended a sold-out event hosted by the New England Aquarium and National Geographic Society where scientists discussed why these places are unique natural treasures. More than 160,000 people have electronically petitioned the president for monument protection.

America has a long tradition of protecting our remarkable natural heritage and biological bounty. In contrast to our public lands and the Pacific Ocean, there are no areas in the Atlantic that are fully protected as national monuments. But why monument protection?

Unlike fishery management closed areas or national marine sanctuaries, national monument designation protects against all types of commercial extraction that are harmful and can damage critical habitat: fishing, oil and gas exploration, sand and gravel mining, and more.

Scientists say large-scale marine habitat protection is necessary to increase ocean resiliency in the face of climate change. Undisturbed underwater “laboratories” in places with relatively pristine habitats, like the Cashes Ledge area and the canyons and seamounts area, will be key in studying how — and how well — we are managing these already changing ocean ecosystems. These irreplaceable habitats can only play that role when protected in their entirety.

 

Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF
Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

Current protections by the New England Fishery Management Council are critical but not sufficient, as they are temporary, only limited to commercial fish species, and any coral protections are only discretionary. A monument designation protects all sea life and makes that protection permanent. It would be managed by scientists and others with ecological expertise (including but not limited to fisheries expertise). Fishery management councils were not designed and are not in the business of protecting scientifically unique and ecologically critical areas in the ocean.

Permanent closure will also benefit collapsed fish populations like Atlantic cod, which would be able to rebuild and sustain themselves at healthy levels. Research is beginning to show that refuges could help struggling species like cod produce larger, older and significantly more productive females that could help recovery when their offspring eventually spill out to restock fishing in surrounding waters. The fishing industry is poised to benefit in the long term when commercially important fish are able to rebound.

Protecting the few unique marine places we have left is good for the fishermen and communities that rely on a healthy and abundant ocean for their livelihoods and is our obligation to future generations.

Download a PDF of the article here.

Baked Cod: The Path Forward in an Era of Climate Change

In recent weeks, we learned more sobering news for New England’s cod population. A paper published in Science detailed how rapidly increasing ocean temperatures are reducing cod’s productivity and impacting – negatively – the long-term rebuilding potential of New England’s iconic groundfish. The paper confirmed both the theoretical predictions associated with climate change and the recent scientific federal, state, and Canadian trawl surveys that reported a record-low number of cod caught in recent months.

To be clear, the Science authors do not conclude that ocean temperature changes associated with climate change have caused the collapse of cod. We have management-approved overfishing of cod to thank for that.

What rising ocean temperatures do seem to be doing, according to the Science paper, is dramatically changing the productivity of the remaining cod stocks. This makes it more difficult for cod to recover from overfishing today than at any other time in history, and perhaps reduces the ultimate recovery potential even if all fishing were halted. Stock assessments conducted without taking these productivity reductions into full account will dramatically overestimate cod populations and, in turn, fishing quotas.

The Science paper is potentially very important, with major implications for fishing limits on cod for decades to come, But stock assessment scientists have warned for years that their recent models were likely overestimating the amount of cod actually in the water – and the corresponding fishing pressure the stock could withstand. Unfortunately, those warnings have fallen on deaf ears at the New England Fishery Management Council.

In fact, the managers at the Council, dominated by fishermen and state fisheries directors with short-term economic agendas, could hardly have done more than they already have to jeopardize Atlantic cod’s future—climate change or not.

Overfishing, a Weakened Gene Pool, and the Loss of Productive Female Fish

As a result of chronic overfishing, New England’s cod population is likely facing what geneticists call a “population bottleneck,” meaning that the diversity of the remaining cod gene pool is now so greatly reduced that the fish that are left are less resilient to environmental stresses like increasing sea temperatures.

Overfishing has also caused the collapse of the age structure of the cod populations by removing almost all of the larger, more reproductive females (also known as the Big, Old, Fat, Fecund Females, or BOFFFS). Scientists have previously warned that losing these old spawners is a problem for cod productivity, but this new research suggests that the potential damage from their elimination may be significantly greater than imagined as a result of poor, climate change–related ecological conditions.

The Science paper hypothesizes that an underlying factor in the productivity decline of cod this past decade was the correlation between extremely warm spikes in ocean temperatures and the drop in zooplankton species that are critical to the survival of larval cod. With fewer zooplankton, fewer cod larvae make it to their first birthday.

The impacts of this zooplankton decline on cod productivity, however, could be exacerbated by the loss of the BOFFFs. Here’s why:

Cod start to spawn at three to four years old, but young females produce significantly fewer and weaker eggs and cod larvae than their older counterparts. Those elder female fish, on the other hand, produce larger, more viable eggs – sometimes exponentially more healthy eggs – over longer periods of time. If the older female cod population had still been plentiful, they might have produced larvae more capable of surviving variations in zooplankton abundance.

Perhaps the continued presence of larger, older, spawning females to the south of New England (where there is no commercial cod fishery) is one of the reasons that the cod fishery in the nearby warm waters off New Jersey is healthier now than it has been in recent history.

The Cod Aren’t Completely Cooked Yet: Four Potential Solutions

Cod have been in trouble since the 1990s, and now climate change is magnifying these troubles. This new reality, however, is not cause for us to throw in the towel. There are actions that our fishery managers can take now that will make a difference.

First, large cod habitat areas have to be closed to fishingpermanently. This is the only way to protect the large females and increase their number. Designating cod refuges such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area as a marine national monument will remove the temptation for fishery councils – always under pressure to provide access to fish – to reopen them in the future.

Such monuments would also sustain a critical marine laboratory where more of these complex interactions between cod and our changing ocean environment can be studied and understood.

Second, managers need to gain a better understanding of the cod populations south of Cape Cod. While it is well and good to land “monster” female cod on recreational boat trips, those fish may be the key to re-populating Georges Bank. Caution, rather than a free-for-all, is the best course of action until the patterns of movement of those cod populations, as related to ocean temperature increases, are better understood.

Third, as observed in the Science paper, stock assessment models as well as guidance from the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee must start incorporating more ecosystem variables and reflecting a more appropriate level of scientific precaution in the face of the reality of climate change shifts. Enough talk about scientific uncertainty and ecosystem-based fisheries management; action is needed, and science should have the lead in guiding that action.

Finally, the importance of funding data collection and fishery science is evident from this important Science paper, which was supported by private, philanthropic dollars. NOAA should be undertaking this sort of work – but it is not in a position to even provide adequate and timely stock assessments, because limited funding forces the agency to use the existing outdated models.

NOAA’s funding limitations are constraining both collection of the essential field data needed to understand our changing world as well as the analysis of that data into meaningful and appropriate management advice. If Congress can find $33 million to give fishermen for the most recent “groundfish disaster,” it ought to be able to find money to prevent such avoidable disasters in the future.

Ultimately, the Science paper shines some much needed light on our climate change–related fishery issues in New England, but we can’t let it overshadow decades of mismanagement or justify a fatalistic attitude toward cod rebuilding. Steps can and must be taken, and fishery managers are still on the hook for the success or failure of our current and future cod stocks.

Zooplankton: A tiny creature with a big role in the cod crisis

One of the North Atlantic’s smallest ocean critters is making big waves in New England.

Centropages. Photo courtesy NOAA
Centropages. Photo courtesy NOAA

Over the last decade, we’ve seen the collapse of our iconic Atlantic cod fishery due to extreme overfishing. Now, a new study is showing a potentially disastrous link between the effects of climate change and the ailing species’ chance of recovery.

Warming waters are bound to be bad news for a cold water fish, but the problem goes much deeper than that, affecting the entire life cycle of the species. Some of this is due to tiny, microscopic creatures called zooplankton. So what are these little guys, and why are they so important?

Zooplankton is a categorization of a type of ocean organism that includes various species, including Pseudocalanus spp, and Centropages typicus. These two species happen to be the major food source of larval cod in the Gulf of Maine.

Zooplankton, which are usually smaller than 1/10 of an inch, play a major role in the Atlantic’s food web. When there are lots of them, things are pretty good. Young fish prey on them and grow to be healthy, adult fish.

But when there aren’t enough plankton to go around, species like Atlantic cod can suffer. When cod larvae aren’t easily able to find the food they need to grow, fewer of them make it to their first birthday.

And without lots of cod that survive to be at least 4 years old (the age at which females begin spawning), the recovery of the entire stock can stall. The stock needs larger, older, more productive females to thrive in order to have any hope for recovery.

Warming and shifting

But why would the plankton be in such short supply? This is where climate change comes in. According to NOAA, temperature changes can cause the redistribution of plankton communities. In the Gulf of Maine, scientists have found fewer plankton in the same areas where cod populations have been found to be struggling. The shifts in temperature lead to the displacement of a critical food source, making it difficult for young cod to survive.

Larval cod. Photo courtesy NOAA
Larval cod. Photo courtesy NOAA

With the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of ocean areas, this is an enormously alarming problem. More temperature changes and the shifting of plankton populations could make it even harder for New England cod populations to return to healthy, sustainable levels.

While the cod crisis is the result of many factors – but the loss of tiny zooplankton is a big problem. When considering how to best help cod stocks recover, fishery managers must take into account the effects of climate change, or else risk the total collapse of the species.

BOO! Happy Halloween from this spooky species, the Monkfish

 

Lophius_americanus_museum_of_nature
Photo courtesy Mike Beauregard via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Halloween, we’ve decided to highlight one of the more creepy looking fish that can be found in the waters off of New England. The monkfish (Lophius americanus), also known as goose-fish, anglerfish, and sea-devil, is considered a delicacy abroad, but until recently has been overlooked in America, perhaps due to its obtrusive appearance.

The monkfish is highly recognizable, with its brown, tadpole-shaped body, and its gaping, fang-filled mouth. These eerie-looking fish can be found from Newfoundland to Georges Bank, and all the way down to North Carolina. They prefer to dwell on the sandy or muddy ocean-floor, where they feed on a variety of small lobsters, fish, and eels. Monkfish are typically found at depths of 230-330 feet, but have been caught in waters as deep as 2,700 feet; they have also been known to occasionally rise to the surface and consume small, unsuspecting birds. Females can grow up to forty inches and males up to thirty-five inches, and both can weigh up to seventy pounds. The average market size fish is around seventeen to twenty inches long.

Before the 1960s, monkfish were considered to be undesirable bycatch. However, in the wake of the collapse of the New England Atlantic Cod fishery, the monkfish has slowly started to become a more common alternative, in part due to awareness campaigns about “underutilized species” in New England. Now, monkfish is caught to supply both international and domestic demand – the tail is prized for its firm texture and sweet taste, perfect for baking and poaching, and the liver is used in Japanese sushi.

In fact, in the last two decades, fishing has increased so dramatically that monkfish stocks started to decline. Landings peaked in 1997 at sixty million pounds. However, thanks to the quick action of both the United States and Canada, a management plan was put in place and the stock population started to increase and stabilize. Landings now average around thirty-five million pounds annually. Monkfish are caught using trawls, gillnets, and dredges. The fishery is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the New England Regional Fishery Management Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. These organizations do not impose annual catch limits, but do limit daily catches as well as limit access to the fishery. Nevertheless, the catch is still exceeding target catch levels in certain locations.

Current threats to monkfish are common among New England marine species: warming temperatures, ocean acidification, and habitat loss.

NOAA Fishwatch considers monkfish to be well managed and a “smart seafood choice” – however, it is still vulnerable, and the fishery should continue to be closely monitored, or it could suffer the same fate as other groundfish fisheries.

So, if you are looking for a spooky-themed seafood dish for this weekend’s festivities, it might be time to give monkfish a try… It would also make one unique Halloween costume!