Ocean Immersion in a Land-locked Town: Creating a Mini Cashes Ledge

The quiet hum of the chiller and protein skimmer can be heard in the halls of Hanover High School in Hanover, New Hampshire, as a large 100-gallon “Educational Aquatic Ecosystem” sits near the windows of the large cafeteria in the middle of the building. The tank’s glass bears the unmistakable green tinge of a new phytoplankton bloom. On a submerged rock, a barnacle colony is happily feeding for the first time in weeks. Thanks to an enterprising senior, Hanover High School, perched on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, has become home to its own tiny marine ecosystem.

Step aside, model volcano – Alex Taylor and Hanover High School are taking science projects to the next level.

Spurred by his lifelong passion for the ocean, Alex, with support from a few teachers, the Ecosystems Management Club, and a grant from a local community organization, spearheaded the establishment of a fully functioning aquarium system that mimics the conditions of Cashes Ledge, a biological hotspot in the heart of the Gulf of Maine.

The group was able to build “an unusual learning model . . . that has become a classroom” remarks Scott Stokoe, the Sustainability Curriculum Coordinator for the school, who helped Alex set up the system over the course of a semester.

The ecosystem is now well established after several months of intense research and communication with local experts. The setup also boasts a “closed loop” system: Rather than constantly feeding the marine life and periodically cleaning its waste by hand, the closed loop system aims to represent how material and energy flows in an ecosystem, with conditions similar to Cashes Ledge.

Why Cashes Ledge?

Cashes Ledge, an area approximately 80 miles off the coast of New Hampshire, is a unique and powerful resource for researchers, educators, and tourists. Called the “Yellowstone of the North Atlantic” by renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, this massive underwater mountain range is home to some of the most iconic and unique marine species in the Atlantic.

Kelp up close! The display contains marine wildlife actually found at Cashes Ledge.
Kelp up close! The display contains marine wildlife actually found at Cashes Ledge.

The fabled Atlantic Cod can be seen swimming alongside blue and basking sharks against a backdrop of the Atlantic’s largest and deepest cold-water kelp forest. This rich biodiversity is mirrored in the Educational Aquatic Ecosystem, albeit on a much smaller scale.

While Cashes Ledge is not easily accessible for most people – especially for students who live on the New Hampshire-Vermont border – the miniature ecosystem is an easy way for the students to gain a firsthand appreciation for the unique and dynamic organisms that call Cashes Ledge home.

Alex, Scott Stokoe, and science teacher Jeannie Kornfeld hope that with improved ecological literacy that comes with studying an area that is part of New Hampshire’s history and current affairs, the project will encourage students to engage more deeply with environmental issues. For example, by studying this system in French class, students learned about the economic and historical value of cod and its impact on French culture while studying the language. By gaining exposure to this incredible educational resource, students in a wide range of classes have grown interested in what their region’s ocean has to offer.

Stokoe points to this project as an excellent example of the transdisciplinary application of ecological literacy that is called for by Environmental Studies professor David Orr. Kornfeld, the science teacher who assisted Alex with the tank, agrees, saying that the “vision is to get people using the system as part of an effort to teach sustainability across curricula.”

Already, this vision is becoming a reality. More than 200 students worked with the system in various classes this past spring; students can also learn more about it through the ecosystems management club.

Conservation Law Foundation has been advocating for many years for permanent protection of special areas like Cashes Ledge, including our current push for President Obama to designate it as a Marine National Monument.

We hope that Cashes Ledge is kept intact for generations to come, so that students and educators like the ones at Hanover High School can continue to engage with a local ecosystem and become involved and informed New England ocean lovers.

Take Action to permanently protect Cashes Ledge today.