Op-ed: Preserve Cashes Ledge and save fish

This post is from an op-ed that was featured in the Climate Change Column of the Ipswich Chronicle. The author is Charlotte Kahn, an Ipswich resident and retired researcher/writer. Kahn attended a presentation last week featuring CLF’s senior counsel Peter Shelley, and felt compelled to share the message with her community.

The “extreme” drought ended with 5.5 inches of rain in January, for which we thank the rain gods. But it’s sobering to recall that 14 inches of rain broke all records in the Mother’s Day Flood of 2006. And according to town historian Gordon Harris, “The five highest floods ever recorded on the Ipswich have occurred since April 1987.”

It doesn’t take a climate scientist to tell us that whiplashing weather patterns are breaking records with unnerving regularity – from historic drought to epic flood, Arctic blast to intolerable heat wave. Fossil-fuel emissions are rising into the atmosphere at rates higher than in millions of years, blanketing and warming the Earth. The Northeast is changing. The waters of the Gulf of Maine – Cape Cod to Nova Scotia – are now heating faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Precipitation in the region is projected to increase by 70 percent – interspersed with longer droughts – this century.

In the face of accelerating change, we need to learn how handle extremes. Our wells and reservoirs almost ran dry during the drought. Yet during storms, rain rushes off the land into storm drains where it mixes with chemical pollutants and dog feces from roads and parking lots and excess nutrients and pesticides from lawns and gardens, flowing into rivers and marshes and washing over the coastal eelgrass that nurtures and protects young fish and shellfish, the “seed corn” of New England’s seafood industry.

Coastal pollution – along with rising temperatures, gas and oil drilling, mineral mining, ocean acidification and industrial fishing methods – is putting extreme pressure on New England’s fish and shellfish stocks. I learned that last week at the North Shore Technology Council’s Sustainability Forum at the Cummings Center in Beverly, where Conservation Law Foundation marine expert Peter Shelley said the demand for fish and shellfish is growing even as fossil fuels are heating the atmosphere and warming the oceans, sending some species to their doom. If we want marine fish to thrive, they need healthy environments in which to grow…

Read the full op-ed here.

Coastal Blue Mussels are in Decline, and the Solution May Lie a Hundred Miles Offshore

If you’ve ever gone tide-pooling in New England, or just strolled the shoreline, chances are you’ve seen blue mussels. Sometimes it may just be an empty shell lying on the sand, the animal itself already preyed upon by a bird, or some may still be holding on strong to the rocky substrate.

Blue mussels play an important role in our region’s ocean ecosystem, not only as a food source for seabirds, sea stars, and whelks, but also for filtering the water and cycling toxins. They also serve as an important economic resource for fishermen harvesting from the wild, and entrepreneurs exploring aquaculture production. The AP reports that the dockside value of wild blue mussels peaked in 2013 at $13 million nationally.

Unfortunately, blue mussel populations – a species that once covered two-thirds of the Gulf of Maine’s intertidal zone – have dramatically declined. A new marine ecology study from the University of California at Irvine, highlighted by numerous news sources, found that Gulf of Maine coastal populations of blue mussels have declined more than 60 percent in the last four decades.

The researchers said that the decline is the result of multiple factors: warming ocean temperatures, increased human harvesting, and invasive species. This decline is yet another example of the vulnerability of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, which is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Mussels are a sturdy marine animal; they are designed to thrive in harsh intertidal areas where they are regularly exposed to crashing waves, hot sun, and the coming and going of tides.

Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, told the AP that this study shows the clear need for more research on the effects of warming waters and commercial harvesting on mussel abundance. It’s also evidence for the need to protect and strengthen the resiliency of our marine environment.

The Gulf of Maine Needs a Fully Protected Marine Area

At Cashes Ledge, located at the heart of the Gulf of Maine, healthy and thriving mussel beds blanket the sea floor. The mussels are accompanied by abundant Atlantic cod and pollock populations, North Atlantic right whales, and more. One reason why this area thrives is because of the restrictions on harmful commercial fishing practices. The animals and plant life at Cashes Ledge have been able to find refuge in this habitat, where they can breed, feed, and grow. This is an area that deserves to be protected now and forever.

Protecting Cashes Ledge, an area 100 miles of the coast, may not directly benefit our coastal mussel populations, but it will create a long-lasting healthy ecosystem that has a better chance of fighting the impacts of climate change. Additionally, scientists could use this area as an underwater research laboratory where they could study the impacts of warming waters and apply their findings to other areas of the Gulf of Maine, including coastal areas.

The Gulf of Maine is a highly dynamic ecosystem that is interconnected, from the species that live on the seafloor to the species that dive in from above. Humans also have a place in that ecosystem, but our actions have all too often been influenced by industry interests and resource extraction. There isn’t one area in the Gulf of Maine that is fully protected from commercial extractive activities. It is time to change that – it is time to permanently protect Cashes Ledge.

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. 

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.

 

From the Ledge: Leg 2 Recap

Photo: A panoramic view of Nitrox scuba dive operations at the Ammen Rock dive site on Cashes Ledge, taken from the bridge of the RV Connecticut on June 3, 2016. Divers Brian Skerry and Steve De Neef are returning to the zodiac dive tender after photographing in the remarkable kelp forest. Orange buoys mark the dive sites. Liz Kintzing is on deck to dive next (left foreground) while Dive Safety Officer Jeff Godfrey oversees the dive operations. The swell in background is due to ship movement while the photo was taken.

Underwater photographers Brian Skerry, Steve De Neef and Luis Lamar, scientists Jon Witman and Fiona Beltram and Dive Safety Officers Elizabeth Kintzing and Jeff Godfrey returned late Sunday night, June 5, 2016, from the second expedition to Cashes Ledge, this time aboard the RV Connecticut.

The team photographed the luxuriant kelp forest on Ammen Rock, along with the abundant fish – cod, pollock and cunner – and myriad invertebrates living on the surface of the mountain peak and within the forest.

Jon and Liz repeated their surveys of kelp and fish populations, finding dense Saccharina kelp (see image below) growing more than 5 meters in height, reaching astounding standing stock biomasses up to 7.0 kg per square meter at 15 meters depth.

The window of good weather enabled the team to dive consecutively for 2.5 days – the longest stretch of diveable days at Cashes Ledge in recent years!

Photos:

Fiona Beltram of the Witman Lab holds up a long strand of Saccharina kelp from Cashes Ledge. Photo by Allison Lorenc, taken May 27, 2016.
Fiona Beltram of the Witman Lab gets help measuring a long strand of Saccharina kelp from Cashes Ledge. Photo by Allison Lorenc, taken May 27, 2016.
Divers Jon Witman and Liz Kintzing stepping off the stern of the RV CT to dive at Ammen Rock on June 4, 2016. Orange buoy in background is their target to swim to as it marks the dive site. Lu Lamar (at right) prepares a Remotely Operated Vehicle to dive.
Divers Jon Witman and Liz Kintzing step off the stern of the RV CT to dive at Ammen Rock on June 4, 2016. The orange buoy in background is their target to swim to, as it marks the dive site. Lu Lamar (right) prepares a Remotely Operated Vehicle to dive.

 

 

From the Ledge: Leg 1 Complete

This is the third in my series of reports from this year’s expedition to Cashes Ledge with Brian Skerry and Brown University biologist Jon Witman. Follow the expedition on Twitter for regular updates!

If you were following along with us on Twitter this weekend, you may have seen that we had to cut short our weekend expedition to Cashes Ledge. After a brilliant, sunny day on Saturday, we woke up to stormy seas and high winds Sunday morning. Due to the unexpected turn in weather, the captain of the ship quickly made the decision to pull anchor and head back to Boston in the early morning.

We slowly made our way out of the storm and the seas began to calm, and we arrived in Boston around 6:30pm. Time certainly seemed to move more slowly when the team wasn’t in and out of the water all day, but the travel day on the boat gave the team the opportunity to review its work from the previous diving days.

The photography team – Brian Skerry and Steve DeNeef – looked through their many pictures and video of the breathtaking and diverse wildlife at Cashes Ledge, and Dr. Jon Witman and his assistant Fiona began to analyze data. I also had the opportunity to interview Brian, Jon, and Steve on video about the trip and why Cashes Ledge deserves to be permanently protected as a marine national monument.

Even though we had to end the trip early, we’re excited that this was only Leg 1 of the expedition. The team hopes to head back out to Cashes Ledge via the R/V Connecticut very soon. It looks like poor weather may delay their departure this week, and although I won’t be on board this time, we will continue to keep you updated on the their status and progress.

We’re looking forward to what else the team will be able to capture during Leg 2!

 

From the Ledge: Saturday, May 28

This is the second in my series of reports from this year’s expedition to Cashes Ledge with Brian Skerry and Brown University biologist Jon Witman. Follow the expedition on Twitter for regular updates!

What a special place to be. The fog cleared yesterday, and after our own dinner, as the sun set behind the clouds, we sat on the bow watching whales lunge feed on schools of herring. When the herring balls, moving as one unit, came close enough to the ship, you could see each individual fish swimming just below the surface. At night, the sky was filled with stars, as you would expect I guess being 100 miles from land.

Strong winds and larger waves had been predicted for today, but we’ve been lucky to have calm seas and a bright, warm sun.

The team reported that the visibility was better than yesterday, giving a milky blue look underwater. One diver said the absence of current made it feel like “hydrotherapy” – even though the water was still only 49°F.

On the first dive of the day, Dr. Jon Witman placed two GoPro cameras on Ammen Rock, one on top of a knoll and the other in a gulley, to take video of the fish swimming by. He collected the cameras on the second dive and will bring them back to his lab for analysis.

Brian Skerry described to us the scenery that he tried to capture with his photographs: gold kelp with a soft amber-colored algae bottom, a wolfish slithering into the kelp just near the bottom of the anchor line, and a photo-shy red cod.

Just before lunch, Dr. Witman gave the group a science lesson about the internal waves found at Cashes Ledge, which are what make the ecosystem so productive. The waves, which give the surface water a slick appearance, create what he calls a “food elevator,” delivering layers of concentrated phytoplankton to the deeper waters multiple times a day. Seabirds feed and minke whales dive into the layers.

The most exciting part of the day was when two minke whales swam through the dive site just as the team was surfacing! They then stayed in the area to feed on the plentiful plankton at Ammen Rock.

It’s late in the afternoon, but the camera team is about to head out for their third dive. Dr. Witman has collected his data for this site and will dive again tomorrow.

Dive 1: 50 minutes, average depth 32 feet, max depth 43 feet
Dive 2: 48 minutes, average depth 38 feet, max depth 51 feet
Water temperature: 49°F

From the Ledge: Friday, May 27

This is the first report from this year’s expedition to Cashes Ledge with Brian Skerry and Brown University biologist Jon Witman. I’m accompanying the team and reporting from Cashes. Follow the expedition on Twitter for regular updates!

After departing Boston, MA, around 2pm yesterday, our research vessel slowly made its way to Cashes Ledge, arriving in the early dawn.

Let me just say, you don’t have to go below the waves to know that Cashes Ledge is full of life. We spent the morning watching humpback whales feed on schools of fish, while seabirds circled and dived from above. All day the whales continued to surface, so close to the ship that we could hear their spout from on deck.

The waters were fairly calm today and the team was able to complete two dives, the first around 10am and the second around 2pm. The fog rolled in just as the second dive began and has stayed with us. The visibility underwater was low, but the team saw plenty of fish – mainly cod, pollock, and cunner. After the first dive, Brian Skerry reported that the kelp is healthy, thick, and lush, and Dr. Jon Witman described it as “very luxurious.”

Fiona-Kelp-CashesExpedition2016While the team was underwater, I assisted Dr. Witman’s undergraduate assistant Fiona Beltram as she measured the kelp samples collected by the scientists from Ammen Rock. Among the kelp, we found beautiful sea stars, baby brittle stars, horse mussels, and encrusting bryozoans. Don’t worry, all the samples are being returned to the sea.

As Jon and Fiona finish measuring their kelp samples, the rest of the team is relaxing (some napping) after a busy first day.

Dive 1: 48 minutes, average depth 34 feet, max depth 46 feet
Dive 2: 44 minutes, average depth 40 feet, max depth 46 feet
Water temperature: 49°F