North Atlantic Right Whale

Happy Birthday to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary!

Above – An endangered North Atlantic right whale, among the most beloved residents of Stellwagen Bank, moves along the surface of the water. 

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the designation of the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary – New England’s first and thus far only National Marine Sanctuary and one of only 13 National Marine Sanctuaries nationwide. Named in honor of a long time Massachusetts member of Congress and in recognition of its outstanding ecological importance to New England’s ocean, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary lies just 25 miles off the coast of Boston and encompasses an area approximately 842 square miles in size. Stellwagen Bank itself was named after Henry S. Stellwagen, a Lieutenant in the US Navy who first surveyed and mapped the area and its surround waters in 1854.

Geologists believe that Stellwagen Bank was originally dry land, wandered by wooly mammoths and mastodons, prior to being sculpted and forced underwater 14,000 years ago by the last Ice Age glaciers. Today’s Stellwagen Bank is incredibly diverse – home to more than 575 species, including sponges, corals, starfish, lobster, sea scallops, and squid. There are also many groundfish species, such as Atlantic cod, yellowtail flounder, and Atlantic wolffish. Schools of bluefin tuna and elegant blue sharks cruise the middle depths in search of prey, while 30-foot basking sharks and prehistoric ocean sunfish ride the surface currents. Although increasingly rare, loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles still live here, protected by the Endangered Species Act.

But Stellwagen Bank is perhaps best known for its 19 species of marine mammals – including seals, harbor porpoises, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and pilot, minke, finback, and humpback whales, the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (pictured above), and the 100-foot blue whale – the world’s largest animal.


A map of Stellwagen Bank, including the original shipping lanes (here called “Existing TSS”) and the current shipping lanes (“Proposed TSS”), which were shifted after intensive whale surveys informed a better route.


Stellwagen’s close proximity to land and its tremendous resources have drawn intensive human activity and uses that pose significant challenges to the long-term health of this special place.  When Stellwagen Bank NMS was designated in 1992, a prohibition on oil and gas drilling and sand and graveling mining within the Sanctuary was imposed, but the designation established little in the way of new protections for its living marine resources.

Intensive commercial and recreational fishing takes place throughout the sanctuary for species such as cod, haddock, flounder, tuna, herring, and lobster. And although it is a National Marine Sanctuary, bottom trawling occurs throughout much of the area threatening seafloor habitats. Hundreds of large cargo ships cut through the middle of the Sanctuary throughout the year traveling along the shipping lanes into Boston, presenting a threat to surface feeding North Atlantic right whales that are prone to ship strikes. The Sanctuary is working to minimize this harm, and has done extensive work to understand where the whales are most likely to be in the Sanctuary, and has cooperated in altering the shipping lanes to be more protective.

Currently the Sanctuary is working to develop a much needed ecological research area that would allow managers to study the impacts of human activities on Stellwagen’s ecosystem and devise better protections for this special place.

This month, New England Ocean Odyssey is excited to celebrate Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary with spectacular photographs and stories of the work that the Sanctuary is doing to protect its precious resources.

Happy Birthday Stellwagen!