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.

CLF at Our Ocean Conference 2016: The Gulf of Maine Requires Our Attention

At the third annual international Our Ocean Conference earlier this month, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, 136 new initiatives on marine conservation and protection – valued at $5.24 billion – were committed, and more than 1.5 million square miles of newly protected marine areas were established.

In between commitments from the countries of Sri Lanka and Panama, Conservation Law Foundation Vice President and Director of Ocean Conservation Dr. Priscilla Brooks took to the microphone to address heads of states and environment ministers from around the world. On this global stage, we announced an $8 million commitment to address climate impacts in the Gulf of Maine, where water temperatures are rising faster than virtually any other ocean area in the world.

Earlier in the week, President Obama made history when he announced the permanent protection of the first marine habitats in the Atlantic: the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Covering almost 5,000 square miles, this designation will protect centuries-old coral formations, endangered marine mammals and other treasured marine life, and will provide a living laboratory for continued scientific discovery.Our commitment includes working with partners to reduce regional carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020, and to increasing the climate resiliency of the Gulf of Maine by protecting important habitats such as Cashes Ledge.

In coalition with groups like Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Pew Charitable Trusts, New England Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium and many other educational organizations, marine scientists, and others, CLF advocated for the permanent protection of not just the three canyons and four seamounts that made the cut for the final monument area, but also for two additional deep-sea canyons and an area in the Gulf of Maine called Cashes Ledge.

With our renewed commitment, CLF’s efforts will continue. With so many leaders committing to ocean protections, the ocean’s importance to climate change solutions is clear.

The Gulf of Maine: High in Importance; Highly in Distress

According to scientist Andy Pershing, who in 2014 published a paper saying the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of ocean areas, temperatures used to increase by about 0.05 degrees per year, from 1982 until 2004. But in the years since, that pace sped up – increasing by about a half-degree per year. That’s 10 times faster than normal.

Certain atmospheric events could be pushing heat into the Gulf, and the complexity of the area’s ecosystems may contribute – but scientists aren’t sure about the exact causes behind this alarming trend.

What is certain, however, is that it’s a major problem.

From lobsters moving northward in search of cooler temperatures, to weakening species gene pools that could disrupt entire food webs, a warmer Gulf of Maine has the potential to wreak havoc on our fisheries, recreational activities, and even tourism, which contributes significantly to healthy coastal economies. What’s needed to solve this problem is likely just as complex as the Gulf of Maine itself.

That’s why CLF is taking a multi-pronged approach, and that’s why it was important to announce our commitment on a global platform. Lowering greenhouse gas emissions is necessary and prudent, and will remain an unwavering key component of any strategy combating climate change in the years to come.

But an additional commitment to resiliency is particularly key for the Gulf of Maine. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was excellent and unprecedented progress, and we must expand upon that progress by designating a similar fully protected marine reserve in the Gulf of Maine.

Large marine reserves are critical reference sites for scientists to understand how increasing ocean temperatures, increased ocean acidity, and increased freshwater flow into the Gulf of Maine are changing species productivity and ecosystem function.

Scientists also believe fully protected marine areas are more resilient to the negative effects of climate change than their unprotected counterparts. According to regional marine expert and Mystic Aquarium scientist Dr. Peter Auster, “As human activities reach deeper and deeper into the sea, it will be critically important to have places that we protect in perpetuity to serve as reservoirs of the genetic diversity within species that could allow them to adapt to new conditions caused by a changing climate.”

A comprehensive body of research by Auster and another regional marine scientist, Dr. Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium, was presented in March that showed how key areas – the entire Canyons and Seamounts area along with the Cashes Ledge area – were scientifically worthy of this full level of protection.

Cashes Ledge has an abundance of marine species and a wide variety of habitats, and is considered a “biodiversity hotspot.” It is well-documented by marine ecologists, and its beauty has been captured by National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry. Since 2012, Cashes Ledge has inspired its own constituency of advocates who may never set a flipper in Cashes’ waters, but will campaign to permanently protect it for as long as it takes.

We are incredibly thankful for the leadership of President Obama and the State Department, and for Senator Richard Blumenthal and additional New England members of congress for making the proposal to protect New England’s canyons and seamounts a reality.

In the words of renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle: “Now, let’s finish the job!”

Click here to say “Thank You” to President Obama for the first marine national monument in the U.S. Atlantic!

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.

Seamounts Species Spotlight: Bluefin Tuna

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 3 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

Just imagine a 10-foot long, steel blue, torpedo-shaped body darting through the water of the open ocean and it’s easy to understand why the Atlantic Bluefin tuna is at the top of the oceanic food chain.

This predator is one of the ocean’s most impressive swimmers, built for quick and calculated movements as its body is smooth with retractable fins, allowing it to minimize drag and maximize speed. Tuna also go far: some individuals have been observed making multiple migrations between the United States and Europe each year.

These world travelers spend their summers feasting upon herring and eels in the waters of the Gulf of Maine. At some 1,500 pounds, tuna prefer to swallow prey whole and are considered a very aggressive predator. To maximize vision (presumably helping with predatory ability), tuna are even partially warm-blooded, a rare trait for a fish.

Mating Grounds Discovered Near Canyons and Seamounts

Many details of the fish’s behavior were unknown until recently. A study released this year revealed the discovery and confirmation of a previously unknown mating ground in the “Slope Sea,” an area of ocean between the Gulf Stream and continental shelf, which includes much of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area. The area was identified after poppy seed-sized larvae were detected in the waters with further analysis confirming their birthplace.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the Atlantic Bluefin tuna’s close relative, Pacific Bluefin tuna, an incredibly popular and valuable commodity in places across Asia. In 2013, a Pacific Bluefin went for a record $1.76 million in Tokyo.

The Pacific Bluefin’s global fame has, unfortunately, spelled collapse for global stocks. All three species of Bluefin tuna – Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern – are at risk of collapse because of human predation. The Atlantic population has decreased by as much as 51 percent in just three generations.

As a completely migratory species, comprehensive management has proven difficult, with responsibility currently falling to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). Currently, there is effort being placed on monitoring and accurately reporting the origins of each landing along with strict catch limits.

As we continue to discover more about these powerful fish, it is important that we protect the areas that they rely on, such as their feeding and breeding grounds. The discovery of a North Atlantic breeding ground requires much more study so managers can learn more about how to better manage this species. Permanently protected the New England Canyons and Seamounts is an excellent step in the right direction.

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. 

An Ocean Warming: Sea Level Rise

In a previous post, we explored changing ocean chemistry through the phenomenon known as ocean acidification, and the effects of it on the people and species that call the Gulf of Maine home.

However, there is another important piece of the puzzle. As ocean water becomes warmer and more acidic, it expands and swells. This increase in volume, combined with fast-melting arctic sea and land ice, causes substantial changes in sea level – which can wreak havoc on our coastlines.

Numerous studies have shown that the East Coast, ranging from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine, is experiencing this phenomenon, known widely as sea level rise, at a rate three to four times faster than the global average. In fact, researchers refer to the region as a “unique 1,000-kilometer-long hotspot” where the impacts will be “disproportionately felt.” For New England especially, sea level rise spells trouble because of the vulnerability of our coastal cities, utilities, and infrastructure – not to mention our strong dependence on our coastal economies.

Unquestionably, the threat of sea level rise demands our attention because frankly, this isn’t an issue to be discussed and acted upon at some point in the future – it is happening now.

Signs of sea level rise, including incidences of “sunny-day flooding” and storm surges, have shown that the threat is real and imminent. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the coasts of New Jersey and New York, we saw the massive destruction that sea level rise and strengthened storm surges can have on a city.

Fortunately, Boston missed the brunt of the storm, but having seen its impacts, it’s clear that Boston cannot wait until it is too late or until a disaster like super-storm Sandy strikes to begin planning.

It is paramount that we have the necessary groundwork laid out so Boston, and New England at large, is able to adapt to the issue. Through the creation and implementation of forward-thinking policies, the consequences of sea level rise can be lessened. In most cases, with adequate energy and resources devoted to the issue, we will be able to anticipate some of what is to come and preemptively address the areas in which attention is immediately needed.

Some research and planning is already happening. Sea Change Boston has an interactive map which shows a variety of possible scenarios for what Boston might look like – and which areas might be underwater – depending upon the incidence of major storms over time. This map is based upon projections that global sea levels are projected to rise 1-2 feet by 2050. And the Boston Harbor Association put together additional maps showing the impacts of sea level rise to Boston and the surrounding areas if the sea level rises 2.5 feet, 5 feet, or 7.5 feet.

With the Gulf of Maine warming at a rate faster than 99 percent of other ocean areas, we in New England must be prepared with policies focusing on protection, adaptation, and/or accommodation to sea level rise, all of which will be critical in shaping how we respond to this imminent threat. It is only a matter of time before a rising sea level will begin impacting our infrastructure, transportation, and even our safety.

 

 

Dive in on Cashes Ledge 3.0!

We are excited to announce that we have embarked upon a dive expedition this week, exploring the crown jewel of New England’s ocean – Cashes Ledge! We can’t wait to report to you from one of our most treasured special places, accompanied by our friend and partner, Brian Skerry, and Cashes Ledge expert scientist Dr. Jon Witman.

Unlike in years past, our research vessel, provided and operated by the Waitt Foundation, will take the 100-mile trip out to Cashes Ledge from Portsmouth, NH, and will remain at sea through May 30. During this time period, our talented team of scientists, photojournalists, and cinematographers will take full advantage of every opportunity to explore and document this place. Additionally, I will be highlighting the expedition live from the boat via social media! Be sure to follow Conservation Law Foundation and New England Ocean Odyssey on Facebook and Twitter to receive live updates.

On previous expeditions, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has captured breathtaking images of the kelp forest and marine wildlife at Cashes Ledge, and we are on the edge of our seats to see what critters he will come in contact with this time.

We are even more excited to share the expedition with Conservation Law Foundation and New England Ocean Odyssey followers, so that you can dive in with us to see the beauty of Cashes Ledge as well!

About Cashes Ledge

Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range in the heart of the Gulf of Maine. Its tallest peak, Ammen Rock, rises to within 40 feet of the surface. The strong currents and internal waves along the ledge mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water producing a biodiversity hotspot right in New England’s backyard. Atop the ledge you’ll find the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. The unique ecological conditions found at Cashes Ledge draw in a rich diversity of marine species ranging from bottom-dwelling sea stars, sea anemones, and purple sponges to fish like cod, wolfish, and bluefin tuna to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Campaign to Protect New England’s Ocean Treasures

Cashes Ledge is a truly unique area in New England’s ocean. It’s a refuge habitat for some of our most valuable and iconic species; it’s an underwater laboratory that scientists can use to better understand the effects of climate change; and it’s greatly vulnerable to human and ecological threats. For these reasons, Cashes Ledge deserves to be permanently protected as a Marine National Monument. In addition to following our dive expedition, be sure to follow our campaign to Protect New England’s Ocean Treasures.

Note: As always, trips to Cashes Ledge are weather dependent. We’ll be updating frequently, so be sure to check back in often!

An Ocean Warming: Ocean Acidification, Lobster, and the Need for More Research

Year after year, temperatures in the Gulf of Maine’s waters have risen at unprecedented rates, a result of the same increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide derived from human activity) responsible for climate change.

This has caused a slew of problems for the marine life in the area – and it also means serious trouble for the ocean’s biogeochemical composition. The ocean has always served as Earth’s largest “carbon sink,” meaning that naturally occurring and industrially produced carbon dioxide is dissolved into seawater and, through a chemical synthesis process, forms carbonic acid.

Carbonic acid breaks down into ions that increase the ocean’s acidity. Over time, marine species have evolved alongside this process in a steady transformation leading to a balanced pH for the ocean.

But, as humans have deepened their addiction to climate-warming fossil fuels, more and more carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere – meaning the ocean is taking on more carbon dioxide than ever before. These drastic increases change the ocean’s pH level, throwing it off balance and making it more acidic.

Learning as we go

The full effects of ocean acidification are not yet entirely known, but we have begun to see its effects on certain species. The group of species most threatened by ocean acidification are some of the most important to New England’s coastal economy: the ‘calcifiers’ – lobsters, scallops, oysters and other fish that use the carbonate and calcium ions dissolved in seawater to build their shells.

As the water becomes more and more acidic, it becomes harder to for these species to make and maintain their shells. And as they devote more energy to constructing their shells, less energy can be given to other essential processes, like eating or reproduction.

An uptick in shell disease threatens the fishery

For the American Lobster, ocean acidification has been shown to have devastating effects on the growth and shell building rates of juveniles, making them significantly more susceptible to threats like predation and disease.

A shell disease that creates unsightly lesions in the lobster’s hard exoskeleton, for example, had previously been thwarted by colder water temperatures. But that disease has now slowly begun to creep its way up the coast and into the Gulf of Maine. Given the increasing vulnerability of lobsters, and juveniles in particular, this shell disease and other threats have the potential to inflict serious harm on the species, the fishery, and New England’s economy as a whole.

A Lesson in Taking Initiative

The threats facing our oceans due to ocean acidification have prompted several states to take the initiative to begin to address the regional impacts of coastal and ocean acidification. This spring, Massachusetts senators and representatives are working on a bill that will create a special commission to examine the existing and potential effects of ocean acidification on both ecologically and economically important species in the waters off of Massachusetts.

This bill, Resolve H. 716, follows a rough framework laid out by states like Washington and Maine who have already approved commissions to confront the threats of ocean acidification.

In a recent roundtable forum, Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating emphasized that thorough research on ocean acidification is critical because without the best scientific knowledge, it is impossible to know how Massachusetts should take action.

Following in Washington’s footsteps is an excellent starting point for this work, however the situation facing Massachusetts and Maine (and New England at large) is unique. In the Gulf of Maine, scientists are witnessing changes in temperature and pH more rapidly and dramatically than almost anywhere else in the world – and its waters face a unique stressor due to the arctic ice melt and the resulting influx of freshwater. On top of the environmental factors, New England is especially vulnerable due to its economic dependence on susceptible species such as lobster.

Next Steps

There’s no question that establishing a devoted task force to study ocean acidification and what it means for the people and species in Massachusetts and New England will be helpful. With the support of strong science and the engaged voices of all stakeholders, addressing New England’s unique ocean acidification challenges is an important step in addressing climate change in our region.