World Wildlife Day: Lowest North Atlantic right whale calving season in 15 years intensifies need for solutions

North Atlantic right whales have made headlines lately, and not just because they’re spending time off the coast of Cape Cod. Sadly, reports about the endangered whales have focused on the news that birth rates are now below the mortality rate – indicating population decline. Just three calves were born this winter, the lowest rate in at least 15 years.

A birth rate lower than the mortality rate means that not enough calves are being born to replace the ones that are dying. A likely factor in the decrease of births is the whales’ difficulty in finding reliable food sources. Without adequate fat storage, female right whales are giving birth every seven or so years instead of the normal rate of every three years.

This is troubling for any wildlife species, but especially so for the North Atlantic right whale, of which scientists say just 524 or so remain. (100 are breeding females.)

The recent designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – the first of its kind along the Atlantic seaboard – may help provide these whales with more reliable food sources. Science shows the monument area to be rich with marine wildlife, and with the 4,913 square miles protected from most industrial activity, undisturbed populations of plankton and copepods could help these whales in the long run.

Restoring food sources, though, is a long game, that faces a tougher trajectory as the ocean is becoming more and more crowded and temperatures are rising. With right whales moving around more often in search of food, they are at increased risk of facing their two largest (human-caused) threats: becoming entangled in fishing gear and being hit by a ship.

Ship strikes

Right whales tend to swim close to the surface, making them potential targets for ships that are moving quickly and/or don’t see the whales. The good news is that mortality rates from ship strikes are no longer increasing (even as ship traffic increases) after regulations were put into place requiring ships to decrease their speed in certain areas frequented by right whales during certain times of year. The bad news is that ship strikes are still a leading cause of death for right whales – averaging about one per year.

Fishing gear entanglements

Approximately four to five right whales die each year due to fishing gear entanglements, making it the leading cause of death for the species. In September 2016, Whale 3694 died of “chronic entanglement.” This death was even more heartbreaking than usual since she was of breeding age. It remains unclear whose fishing gear – or even which type of fishery – was responsible for the whale’s death.

Thankfully, there are groups working to understand which types of gear are most responsible for the deaths, and how changes in material and/or flexibility could help pose less of a risk for right whales. The Marine Mammal Commission is focusing its 2017 annual meeting on right whales; New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life has a research program aimed at finding solutions; other groups like the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and the Center for Coastal Studies – among many others – are working together to get right whales back on track toward population growth.

It’s worth noting that scientists are also working to identify other factors that could be at play to explain this year’s dramatically low number of calves, such as population-wide illness, pollution issues, or a genetic dysfunction. Calving season typically goes through the end of this month, so it’s possible we may still see another calf born before the winter is over.

The recent news is disappointing, and with attacks on the Endangered Species Act potentially brewing in congress, it’s critical that this work continues.

Read more about the North Atlantic right whale in our species profile, and share this post on Twitter with the #WorldWildlifeDay hashtag to help us raise awareness. 

Seamounts Species Spotlight: North Atlantic Right Whale

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post is part 2 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

A rare sight in the open ocean, the North Atlantic right whale depends on the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area as a rich feeding zone each year beginning in early spring and lasting through the end of August.

A right whale is easily distinguishable from other species by its large head, two blow holes, and bumpy patches that dot its head and jawline. These rough patches of skin, called callosities, are frequently covered in microscopic sea lice which makes them appear white or orange. Each whale has a different callosities pattern, making individuals easily distinguishable from one another.

These massive critters can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh in at more than 70 tons by consuming hundreds of pounds of zooplankton and copepods each day, making them one of the largest baleen whale species. Right whales feed using the same method as all baleen whales: by taking in a huge mouthful of water and then pushing the water through its tooth-like baleen plates to catch tiny organisms.

The canyons and seamounts make for a reliable feeding area for the right whale, with high concentrations of food sources, and relatively few human disturbances (most of the canyons and seamounts don’t see much commercial fishing activity).

Despite their impressive size, right whales are very slow and were historically an easy and popular target for human hunters for centuries. Currently, the North Atlantic right whale is listed as endangered on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.

What’s in a Name?

Back during the heyday of whaling, this graceful creature was the “right” target for a whaler’s harpoon because of its high blubber content and tendency to float on the surface once killed. This is largely thought to be what first caused the population to crash.

Although the species has been internationally protected since 1949 by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the global population is estimated to be hovering between just 300-500 individuals. These low numbers may be in part due to small litter sizes, making it more difficult for populations to rebound – or because of continued accidental human interference in a variety of ways: Just this spring, a baby right whale died after an apparent ship strike near Cape Cod.

Reducing Human Threats

Right whales can frequently find themselves sharing the waters with boats, resulting in seriously harmful or fatal collisions. Off the coast of New England, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has been successful in moving shipping lanes to reduce the risk of commercial vessel strikes; a small 12 degree shift has the potential to reduce strikes by 58 percent. There has also been progress developing technologies to track whale activity that boats can use to help avoid collisions.

In other cases, development projects can pose threats, such as the Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm off Block Island. Deepwater Wind successfully worked with Conservation Law Foundation and other organizations, however, to halt pre-construction activities during times when right whales were known to be in the area.

Another significant threat to the right whale is fishing rope entanglement, which causes lacerations and infections and can make it difficult for the whale to dive and resurface. But, not all hope is lost: recent innovations in fishing rope production hope to minimize rope entanglement threats.

And, NOAA recently moved to significantly expand critical habitat for right whales, meaning federal agencies conducting permitting activities must work with NOAA Fisheries to avoid or reduce impacts on the critical habitat areas.

These actions are hugely helpful for this struggling species, but more will be needed to ensure population recovery. Comprehensive protection of feeding grounds, such as the canyons and seamounts, would be another big step in the right direction. With little fishing activity occurring in these areas, the canyons and seamounts are a relatively safe place for whales to live and eat, away from busier places where threats are higher.

 

Detangling the Risks of Fishing Line for Right Whales

We have many reasons to appreciate the role of modern technology in today’s fisheries. Electronics, equipment upgrades, and other technological advances have led to more efficient, effective, and economical fisheries. However, in the case of modern fishing line, these technological advances have at times come at a serious cost.

Unlike the natural hemp and sisal lines used in decades past, modern fishing line is made from polypropylene, a synthetic material that makes fishing lines and ropes much stronger and more durable than ever before.

Stronger fishing lines may lead to more effective fishing, but when animals – specifically the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale – encounter this fishing line, the risk of entanglement and death is high.

For endangered right whales, stakes are high

This threat to right whales has been the focus of Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium, for several years. In an article published by Canada’s CBC on fishing line and the risk for lethal entanglement, Knowlton is quoted saying how this risk is “the biggest threat to these animals right now . . . and unless we can fix it, they could go extinct.”

Knowlton describes how this fishing line frequently gets into their mouths when right whales come in contact with it, which causes them to panic and roll around in an attempt to get free. This motion only causes the line to wrap more around their body, and potentially their flukes, impairing their ability to eat and move.

The frequency of this type of entanglement is alarming, with more than 80 percent of the right whale population showing signs of scarring from synthetic fishing lines. Often, the whales cannot break free from the constraining fishing line because of the incredible strength of the new materials used to make it. This fatal entrapment is a leading cause of death for the already struggling North Atlantic right whale population.

Finding a balanced solution

Knowlton is optimistic about finding solutions for this problem, noting that cooperation and collaboration between the fishing industry and manufacturers could lead to the development of a material for lines and rope that can be strong enough for its intended purpose, but not enough to endanger the lives of right whales.

That all involved parties are invested in finding a solution to this problem exemplifies the foundation of effective ocean management that can be accomplished through a regional ocean plan. While this is just a small micro example of interested parties working together (the regional ocean plan won’t identify solutions for fishing line), on a macro level, these principles can be applied to better management of our ocean resources through collaboration and the use of data. With better information and enhanced coordination, we’re much more likely to be able to effectively identify solutions to these types of challenges.

Ocean planning – a process dedicated to finding solutions to problems before they happen by creating a framework to better anticipate needs, set priorities, and make decisions regarding regional ocean uses – has the potential to positively inform these important conversations.

On a small scale, Knowlton, the fishermen, and the industry are finding a solution to address this specific issue. But on a large scale, a developed ocean plan (that all ocean users abide by) can include acknowledgement of fishing grounds and right whale migration routes and other important factors, allowing for a better mutual understanding of what’s at stake – and pave the way for future decision-making that is better informed and more effective for all involved parties.

Conservation Law Foundation has been actively engaged in the ocean planning process in New England from the beginning, and is committed to ensuring that management measures include safeguards for ocean ecosystems. The Northeast Regional Ocean Plan draft will be available soon, and we all have a responsibility to take part it in it – for the sake of the endangered right whale, our fisheries and coastal economies, and our ocean ecosystems.

Read more about the current status of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan.

Right Whales and Cashes Ledge: How to Make a Good Thing Last

By Tricia Jedele

In late January, North Atlantic right whales scored a big win when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expanded the critical habitat for the endangered whale from 4,500 square nautical miles to 28,000 square nautical miles.

The original area included only a portion of Cape Cod Bay and an area east of Nantucket near the Great South Channel. This major expansion adds almost all of the Gulf of Maine, east to Georges Bank, and south all the way to Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Gulf of Maine expansion includes Cashes Ledge – an area known for its rich biodiversity and abundance of fish and marine mammals and a place that CLF has been fighting to permanently protect for years.

This is great news for the North Atlantic right whale – the world’s most endangered large whale – and for those of us who care about saving it. Expanding the whale’s critical habitat means that federal agencies are thinking more systemically about what the right whale needs not just to survive but to once again thrive – designating not only places where the whales congregate to forage, but also the places that are critical for mating and calving.

This expansion is also a terrific example of ocean use planning in action. Before announcing the final decision, NOAA, through its National Marine Fisheries Service, called for public dialogue and input about the proposed expansion. It also allowed for new information to guide and influence its decisions around how to manage and permit other activities (like clean energy projects or industrial exploration) in the expanded areas going forward.

Critical Habitat is Good; Permanent Protection is Better – and Necessary

Right whale calf and mother

Right whale calf and mother. ©Brian Skerry

According to NOAA, calling an area “critical habitat” means that it contains physical or biological features essential to the conservation of a particular species – and those features may require special management considerations or protection.

Federal agencies looking to issue permits or companies seeking permits have to work with NOAA to avoid or reduce impacts from their activities on critical habitats. But, a critical habitat designation isn’t as protective as it sounds. It’s more like a “caution” sign than a stop sign. The designation doesn’t establish a refuge for the right whale or its food sources. And it doesn’t specifically put the area off limits or dictate that certain activities cannot occur.

For endangered species, functional critical habitat is the key to survival. We understand this concept well on land. One ongoing success story is China’s giant panda. People around the world are working to secure permanent protections for its habitats to ensure survival of the species. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has worked with the Chinese government to protect 27,000 acres of Pingwu County for the benefit of just 10 giant pandas.

Today, approximately 1,800 giant pandas remain worldwide. In comparison, just over 500 individual North Atlantic right whales are struggling to survive. Yet we have failed to to permanently protect even one acre of the habitat it needs to recover.

Considering that we know where some of the areas so critical to the North Atlantic right whale are, we need to ask why we’ve been successful in protecting lands critical for terrestrial species, but we haven’t given this same level of protection – or attention – to marine species. Cashes Ledge, a small area in the Gulf of Maine, is uniformly recognized as a scientific marine treasure, and already closed to most fishing. Permanently protecting this area would have little negative impact – yet the positive impact protection might have on the North Atlantic right whale could mean the difference between the species’ survival or its extinction.

Conservation Law Foundation believes that it is time to embrace the familiar land-based conservation principles and apply them, based on the best available scientific information, to permanently protect some of the most impressive and ecologically important ocean habitats and resources in the North Atlantic.

Dramatically expanding the critical habitat area for North Atlantic right whales was without question a good thing – and so was including Cashes Ledge in that designated area.

Let’s now take a good thing and make it even better by permanently protecting Cashes Ledge. Otherwise, this designation will just be a good thing that wasn’t quite good enough.

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

 

Special Species Round-Up: 6 Creatures found in Cashes Ledge

If you are familiar with New England Ocean Odyssey, you know we love Cashes Ledge, a majestic 25-mile undersea mountain range and biological hot spot in the Gulf of Maine.Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

You know that this natural laboratory offers scientists the chance to explore a relatively pristine and unique ecosystem, to discover and observe rare and endangered species, and to hypothesize about what the greater Gulf of Maine looked like before the commercial fishing industry existed.

You know that Ammen Rock, the highest peak in the mountain chain, rises from a depth of 460 feet all the way up into the photic zone (exposure to sunlight), just 40 feet below the ocean’s surface. And you know that Ammen Rock disrupts the dominant Gulf of Maine current, swirling nutrient- and oxygen-rich waters from the seafloor to the top of the water column, providing ideal conditions for a huge array of marine life including sponges, corals, anemones, predatory fish, sharks, whales, and more.

But what specific special species reside at Cashes Ledge, and what migratory visitors stop by throughout the year? Let’s dive a little deeper and find out!

1. (Unclassified) Blue Sponge

This species is so incredibly rare, it hasn’t even been sighted anywhere apart from the rocky walls of Cashes Ledge, let alone taxonomically classified. Needless to say, we have a lot to learn about this species. Cashes is also home to a variety of bright red, orange, and yellow sponges, including mounding sponges as big as footballs! Cod and Invertebrates

Cod swim under a wall of sponges and other invertebrates. Image via NOAA/ONMS

Sponges are primitive creatures that latch on to hard surfaces anywhere from the intertidal zone to the deep ocean floor. They filter feed by absorbing tiny organisms through incurrent (think “inbound”) pores and excreting waste through excurrent (“outbound”) pores. Many sponges can reproduce either sexually or asexually.

 

2. Red Cod

You’ve read about, seen, and probably eaten Atlantic cod…but have you ever heard of red Atlantic cod? While genetic testing has yet to determine if this variation is a distinct species, Graham Sherwood, Research Scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine, hypothesizes that it is not. All cod eat high levels of carotenoids (natural pigments found in organisms such as crabs and worms), so it’s no surprise that some cod are red in color. But why are some red while most are olive-colored?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

Kelp Forest and Red Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

An olive cod (top) and a red cod (bottom) swim through kelp forests at Cashes Ledge. Images via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.
Sherwood’s theory is that the red coloring is an adaptive advantage. Red cod typically permanently reside in shallower kelp forests, while olive-colored cod roam around deeper waters in the North Atlantic. The red coloring may be a U/V protectant or a form of camouflage for shallower waters. We’ll have to stay tuned to find out if red cod are a separate species, or if they are just a colorful variation of olive-colored Atlantic cod.

Check out more Brian Skerry photos of red and olive-colored cod at Cashes Ledge.

 

3. Christmas Anemone

Urticina crassicornis, the Christmas anemone, resides on rock faces at depths up to about 100 feet and may grow to be a foot tall and 8 inches in diameter. It feeds on crabs, urchins, mussels, gastropods, chitons, barnacles, and fish by stinging and stunning prey with venomous cells found in the anemone’s tentacles.

The candy-striped shrimp, Lebbeus grandimanus, is immune to the Christmas anemone’s sting; the two organisms live in a commensal relationship whereby the anemone provides shelter for the shrimp, and the shrimp does not affect the anemone.

Red Anemone A Northern red anemone on a rock wall at Cashes Ledge. CLF/Brett Seymour.

 

 

 

 

4. Porbeagle

Cod and InvertebratesPorbeagle, Lamna nasus. Credit NMFS/E. Hoffmayer, S. Iglésias and R. McAuley.

No, that’s not a white shark – it’s the great white’s lesser known relative, the porbeagle, Lamna nasus. The porbeagle can be easily distinguished from a white shark by its second dorsal fin (that tiny second bump on the shark’s back before its tail). These big guys can grow up to 11 ½ feet long and are highly migratory throughout the Northwest Atlantic. They tend to stay out of shallow waters along the coast, preferring pelagic waters from the surface to depths of 1000 feet. In the Gulf of Maine, they feed on mackerel, herring, other small fish and sharks, and squids.

NOAA listed the porbeagle as a “Species of Concern” for the Northwest Atlantic stock in 2006, the same year that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the subpopulation as endangered. Since the 1960s, overfishing has been a major threat to porbeagles, which are slow-growing with low productivity rates, making it difficult for populations to recover. In the U.S., the species is managed by the Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is currently reviewing two 2010 proposals to list the porbeagle on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.

 

5. North Atlantic Right Whale

The waters off the coast of New England get some magnificent, gigantic visitors. Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales, Eubalaena glacialis, hang out around New England and the Bay of Fundy in the summer and fall to feed on zooplankton and raise their young. They move about the Gulf of Maine in a regular pattern, often stopping at Cashes Ledge, where regular circulation of the water column produces plankton-rich waters. In the winter months, the whales typically migrate to birthing grounds in the coastal waters off the southeastern United States.

The North Atlantic Right Whale was subject to intensive whaling from the 1500s through 1935; populations off the east coast of North America are still struggling to recover, due in large part to boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

North Atlantic Right Whale with Provincetown lighthouse (Long Point) in the backgroundA North Atlantic Right Whale in Cape Cod Bay in front of Provincetown, MA. Image via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.

 

 

6. Bubble Gum Coral

Deep-water coral colonies thrive in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. Paragorgia arborea, nicknamed bubble gum coral for its pink color, is a fan-shaped coral (aka “sea fan”…creative, right?) that typically inhabits exposed locations at depths of 600 to 4,300 feet. It can grow up to six meters tall, making it a real treasure for divers to spot. At Cashes Ledge, Paragorgia inhabits the hard-bottom basalt substrate.

Deep sea corals grow slowly and may live to be thousands of years old, making them extremely susceptible to lasting damage from bottom trawlers. One sweep of a trawl net can destroy centuries of growth – a problem not only for the corals, but also for the marine species that use the corals as a nursery and refuge habitat.

Paragorgia

Paragorgia colonies in the New England Seamount chain. Image via NOAA Ocean Explorer.

These are just six of the marvelous, charismatic species that depend on the nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. If we are to protect them, we must start by protecting Cashes Ledge.

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.

GillSlits

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.

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

 

 

 

 

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

Fish Friday: SOS! Save Our (Atlantic) Salmon!

Welcome to our second installation of Fish Friday (on a Thursday)! Last week, we focused on the Atlantic sturgeon, a species listed as endangered or threatened throughout the mid-Atlantic – it’s no surprise these fish are off the menu. But what about Atlantic salmon, the most-consumed species of salmon (the second most-consumed type of seafood) in the U.S.?

In 2013, Americans ate 2.7 pounds of salmon per person, second only to shrimp. As such a prominent American (and international) menu staple, wild Atlantic salmon populations must be flourishing, right? Wrong – commercial Atlantic salmon fisheries in the U.S. have been closed since 1948, and most recreational fisheries were shut down decades ago. Global stocks have been declining since the early 1800’s. So what’s going on? And what have you been eating?

The Fish

Atlantic salmon is the only salmon species native to the East Coast of the United States. Like Atlantic sturgeon, Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in freshwater, spend a majority of their lives in salt water, and return to freshwater to spawn. The life cycle of Atlantic salmon is fairly complex, as the salmon mature through multiple life stages during their first 1-2 years before they migrate to the open ocean.

In late autumn, female salmon bury their eggs along freshwater stream bottoms. Come March or April, the eggs hatch into alevin, which mature into fry after about 3-6 weeks, and then quickly become parr. As parr grow, they become territorial and move to areas with larger substrate and deeper, faster flowing water. Parr go through a physiological process called “smoltification” in which they develop a tolerance for saltwater and imprint on the chemical nature of their stream so they can later return to spawn.

As smolts, Atlantic salmon (now about 2 years old) migrate to the open ocean. They typically spend their first winter south of Greenland, where they mature into adults. During this time, the fish replace their old dietary preferences of small crustaceans and krill with prey fish such as Atlantic herring and rainbow smelt.

After about 2 years, they will return to Maine to spawn in November. Unlike other salmon species, Atlantic salmon are iteroparous, meaning they may spawn more than once.

The Fishery

The Atlantic salmon has been a commercially valuable fish since the fishery opened in Maine in the 1600’s, but due to overfishing, the global population began to decline around the 1800’s. In 1947, fishery landings plummeted to as low as 40 salmon, prompting an effective closure the following year. It wasn’t until 1989, however, that all state and federal commercial salmon fisheries in New England were officially closed by law. Most recreational fisheries in New England also closed decades ago, but a few remain open today under strict regulation.

In 2000, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population segment endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In 2009, the agencies extended the ESA protection to include more territory and, with the help of Conservation Law Foundation, identified Atlantic salmon critical habitat.

To monitor the Gulf of Maine DPS, the U.S. Atlantic Salmon Assessment Committee measures the number of adults returning to rivers in Maine to spawn each year. While some populations in the Northern Baltic Sea may be recovering, the Gulf of Maine DPS is still in trouble. In 2006, the Atlantic Salmon Biological Review Team estimated Atlantic salmon extinction risk at 19-75%.

With U.S. fisheries closed, why is the Gulf of Maine population still at risk of extinction?

Climate change effects, such as warming sea surface temperatures, increased water acidity and aluminum toxicity, and altered predator distributions, dramatically limit juvenile survival. Increased harvests in Greenland may also severely decrease the number of adults returning to Maine to spawn. Finally, New England coastal development and dam sites threaten species that must travel up and down river throughout their life cycles. Restoration efforts have been introduced by the State of Maine, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to reduce the effects of national risks, and environmental groups such as the Atlantic Salmon Federation are calling for stricter catch limits on European countries in order to protect the Gulf of Maine DPS.

 The Fish Farm

Since 1864, Atlantic salmon have been hatchery-raised to supplement the crashed wild populations. U.S. Atlantic salmon aquaculture produces about 12,000 live lbs per year in Maine and 8,000 live lbs per year in Washington. We import about 28,000 live lbs of farmed Atlantic salmon each year mostly from Canada, Chile, Norway, or Scotland.

Over 20 environmental and food safety laws govern U.S. salmon farming in order to prevent issues such as nutrient discharge, animal escape, disease and pathogens, and coastal use conflict. However, as NOAA puts it, “zero environmental risk is not realistic for any type of human activity.” Farming may cause waste build-up, escaped farmed fish may introduce parasites to the wild, and breeding between farmed and wild salmon may decrease genetic adaptations to environmental conditions. Regulations are in place, but the industry is still far from perfect.

Save the Salmon!

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) selected the Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon DPS as one of eight endangered species to feature in their “Species in the Spotlight: Survive to Thrive” initiative. Hopefully, the agency’s concentrated efforts (and subsequent increased global awareness) will begin to stabilize Atlantic salmon populations in the Gulf of Maine and around the world.

Image credits: Timothy Knepp, FWS; NOAA