The Wonder Down Under

The January/February 2016 issue of Brown University’s Alumni Magazine includes a feature of Cashes Ledge and Dr. Jon Witman, who is a professor of biology at the university and a Cashes Ledge expert. Having dived at Cashes Ledge for more than 30 years, Witman has seen the underwater mountain range evolve from a bountiful ecological environment to a still-productive but threatened habitat. Below is an excerpt from the article by Louise Sloan. Read the full version here

It’s not exactly a trip to the Statue of Liberty or Muir Woods. To get to Cashes Ledge, part of a proposed national monument in the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of Maine, you have to get in a boat and head to a spot about eighty miles east of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. After the four-hour trip, you drop an anchor near Ammen Rock, the tallest pinnacle in Cashes Ledge, a twenty-five-mile-long underwater mountain chain. Ammen Rock rises from the sea floor 720 feet below to within thirty feet of the water’s surface. Once there, divers set up a buoy marking the spot, the only clue to Cashes’s underwater marvels. Then they jump into forty-degree water that’s moving at a speed of two to three knots—about as fast as a class II rapids—and “swim like hell for the buoy,” says Professor of Biology Jon D. Witman, who has been conducting research at Cashes Ledge for more than thirty years.

As you pull yourself hand-over-hand down the buoy rope, Witman says, you slowly make out what looks like the ocean floor. But, as you get closer, you realize it’s moving. What you’re looking at is the canopy of an undersea jungle, a forest of kelp exponentially thicker than any you’ll find elsewhere in the coastal Gulf of Maine. Because of the distance between Cashes Ledge and the coast, where the water is clouded by runoff and other pollutants, sunlight penetrates deeply into the clear, cold water. As a result, the kelp grows as far down as 100 feet, and it grown unusually tall—up to fifteen feet.

. . .

Ten years ago, when the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) asked Witman, who teaches Brown undergrads the basics of ecology, to recommend an ocean area to protect, Cashes was the obvious answer. Witman describes it as a “Disneyland of biodiversity” containing every kind of ocean bottom habitat, all in a concentrated space. Combined with the food pump provided by the waves, this dense habitat contains a rare proliferation of sea creatures representing an unusual variety of species. The complexity helps create more ecosystem stability and probably greater resilience to withstand such threats as climate change. With this range of creatures filtering water, removing carbon, producing oxygen, and providing all the other “ecosystem services” that the fish we eat depend on, Witman says, Cashes is a key to the health and productivity of the entire Gulf of Maine, including areas where commercial fishermen harvest cod.

Read the full article

Marine Mammals and Underwater Mountains: More Evidence for Protecting Habitats with Diverse Wildlife

The deep-water canyons, seamounts, and underwater mountain ranges in the coastal waters of New England are gaining recognition for their importance to the health of fish populations like the struggling Atlantic cod. But these unique geological formations are also critical for the marine mammals that call the North Atlantic home.

Hail the WhalesNorth Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf

The Atlantic coast is a veritable highway for migrating whales, which travel from breeding grounds in the south to feeding grounds in the north each year. But with many species facing reduced habitat, diminished populations, and increased boat traffic, this annual journey has become more and more difficult. These growing threats make areas of food abundance and shelter, such as Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts, ever more critical to the success of migrating whales’ journeys.

Cashes Ledge and the canyons and seamounts are unique in the Atlantic because their topography creates ideal conditions for plankton, zooplankton, and copepods – the main food for migrating minke, right, and humpback whales – to thrive. They also serve as spawning ground for larger food sources – including many squish, fish, and crustaceans. Altogether, this rich abundance of species adds up to a bountiful buffet for whales and other marine mammals.

Sperm whales have often been spotted in the waters of seamounts, taking advantage of the reliable food, and Cashes Ledge serves as an oasis for hungry whales on their journey north.

The healthy kelp domino effect

These areas are not only crucial to whales; other marine mammals depend on them as well. Cashes Ledge boasts the largest coldwater kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard, a habitat that creates ideal spawning grounds for cod, herring, and hake. The abundance of fish in turn feeds seals and porpoises, as well as whales.

Scientists have noted a positive correlation between the size of an undersea kelp forest and populations of marine mammals, suggesting that more, healthy kelp means more marine mammals. That makes protecting areas with large kelp forests such as Cashes Ledge even more important.

Even marine mammals that don’t visit Cashes Ledge itself still benefit from the protection of the area’s kelp forest, thanks to the “spillover effect:” Fish spawned in the shelter of the rocky crevasses and havens of the kelp forests disperse beyond Cashes Ledge and feed sea animals throughout the Gulf of Maine.

Across the globe, underwater mountain and canyon habitats have proved to be important areas where marine mammals congregate to feed – and the canyons, seamounts, and ledges off the coast of New England are no different. Unfortunately, these important ecosystems are delicate and facing threats from harmful fishing gear and climate change.

With so much at stake, it is vital to protect these places – not only for their inherent ecological value, but also so that they may sustain the mammals that depend on them.

Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine
Cod today.
2036?
2036?

Imagine it’s 20 years from now, and your grandchild is about to head to bed – but first, she wants to hear a favorite bedtime story, “the one about the fish.” You pull it off the shelf – Mark Kurlansky’s The Cod’s Tale – and begin reading. Unbidden, her eyes widen at the vivid illustrations of the fish with a single chin whisker, at how it has millions of babies, and at how it gave birth to this country.

Every time you read her the story, she asks the same question: “Can we go catch a cod tomorrow?” Every time, you have to tell her there aren’t any more cod in New England. And, every time she asks: “Why?” But you never really have a good answer for her.

Farfetched? Maybe. But unfortunately, local extinction of New England’s Atlantic cod population is no longer out of the realm of possibility.

No Happy Ending in Sight for Cod
The crisis in New England’s cod fishery was once again on the agenda at the New England Fishery Management Council’s December meeting in Portland, Maine. And once again, managers failed to take the basic actions needed for a concerted effort to restore this iconic fish.

In addition to the collapse of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine, New England is facing even greater declines of cod on Georges Bank, the historically important fishing area east of Cape Cod.

The outlook for cod keeps getting worse, and the “actions” taken by the Council are so unlikely to make a difference that we must continue our call to save cod.

The Worst of the Worst
Some recent analyses have concluded that the cod population on Georges Bank is the lowest ever recorded – roughly 1 percent of what scientists would consider a healthy population. Other estimates put the population at only about 3 to 5 percent of the healthy target. The cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is hovering for the second year in a row at roughly 3 percent of the targeted healthy population.

At its meeting last week, the Council did set new, lower catch limits for the severely depleted Georges Bank cod, but, true to form, those limits don’t go far enough. The Council is clearly in denial about the state of this fishery. If there is even a chance the number is 1 percent, this should be cause for major distress among Council members and fishermen alike.

The Council’s actions (or, really, lack of action) leave me wondering, again, whether anyscience would ever be “enough” to compel them to halt the fishing of cod entirely.

Habitat Loss Adds Fuel to the Fire
Astoundingly, the Council also decided earlier this year to strip protection for important cod habitat on Georges Bank – amounting to a loss of some 81 percent of the formerly protected cod habitat.

To recover, depleted fish populations need large areas protected from fishing and fishing gears; they need protected habitat where they can find food and shelter and reproduce; and they need large areas where female cod can grow old and reproduce prolifically. However, our fisheries managers – who are entrusted with safeguarding these precious resources for future generations as well as for current fishermen – ignore this science and continue to stubbornly deny the potential scope of this problem.

This is an especially irresponsible stance in light of climate change. Not only are New England’s cod struggling to recover from decades of overfishing and habitat degradation, now the rapid rise in the region’s sea temperatures is further stressing their productivity. Protected habitats help marine species survive ecological stresses like warming waters.

If a Cod Fish Dies But No One Records It, Did It Ever Really Exist?
As if matters couldn’t get worse, the Council also voted to cut back significantly on the numbers of observers that groundfishing boats would have to have on-board to record what fish are actually coming up in their nets. This is little more than the Council’s blessing of unreported discards of cod and flounder and other depleted fish.

We should be protecting more of these areas, not fewer; we should be doing more for these iconic fish, not less. So why is the Council making it so much harder for cod to recover? Perhaps it is simply contrary to human nature to expect the Council’s fishermen members to impose harsh measures on themselves when the benefits may only be seen by future generations. Perhaps federal fishery councils comprising active fishermen only work well with healthy fisheries.

Federal officials at NOAA Fisheries will have the final say on these Council decisions to strip habitat protections, cutback on monitoring, and continue fishing on cod. We can only hope those officials will start taking the tough but necessary actions, giving New Englanders at least a semblance of hope that our grandchildren will be able to catch a codfish, not just read about one in a book.

A Call for Protections

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of MaineThe following was originally published in National Fisherman.

The Gulf of Maine is warming fast — faster than almost any other ocean area in the world. To say this is alarming is an understatement, and action is needed today to permanently protect large areas of the ocean, which scientists say is one of the best buffers against the disastrous effects of climate change.

To that end, a diverse group of ma­rine-oriented businesses, hundreds of marine scientists, aquaria, conservation organizations and members of the public are calling on the Obama administration to designate the Cashes Ledge Closed Area and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as the first Marine National Monuments in the Atlantic.

Conservation Law Foundation has worked for years to permanently protect the remarkable Cashes Ledge area. This biodiversity hotspot provides refuge for a stunning array of ocean wildlife — from cod to endangered right whales, bluefin tuna to Atlantic wolffish — and a rare lush kelp forest. The New England canyons and seamounts similarly shelter an incredible breadth of sea life, including spectacular ancient coral formations. Public support is widespread and growing. In September, more than 600 people attended a sold-out event hosted by the New England Aquarium and National Geographic Society where scientists discussed why these places are unique natural treasures. More than 160,000 people have electronically petitioned the president for monument protection.

America has a long tradition of protecting our remarkable natural heritage and biological bounty. In contrast to our public lands and the Pacific Ocean, there are no areas in the Atlantic that are fully protected as national monuments. But why monument protection?

Unlike fishery management closed areas or national marine sanctuaries, national monument designation protects against all types of commercial extraction that are harmful and can damage critical habitat: fishing, oil and gas exploration, sand and gravel mining, and more.

Scientists say large-scale marine habitat protection is necessary to increase ocean resiliency in the face of climate change. Undisturbed underwater “laboratories” in places with relatively pristine habitats, like the Cashes Ledge area and the canyons and seamounts area, will be key in studying how — and how well — we are managing these already changing ocean ecosystems. These irreplaceable habitats can only play that role when protected in their entirety.

 

Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF
Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

Current protections by the New England Fishery Management Council are critical but not sufficient, as they are temporary, only limited to commercial fish species, and any coral protections are only discretionary. A monument designation protects all sea life and makes that protection permanent. It would be managed by scientists and others with ecological expertise (including but not limited to fisheries expertise). Fishery management councils were not designed and are not in the business of protecting scientifically unique and ecologically critical areas in the ocean.

Permanent closure will also benefit collapsed fish populations like Atlantic cod, which would be able to rebuild and sustain themselves at healthy levels. Research is beginning to show that refuges could help struggling species like cod produce larger, older and significantly more productive females that could help recovery when their offspring eventually spill out to restock fishing in surrounding waters. The fishing industry is poised to benefit in the long term when commercially important fish are able to rebound.

Protecting the few unique marine places we have left is good for the fishermen and communities that rely on a healthy and abundant ocean for their livelihoods and is our obligation to future generations.

Download a PDF of the article here.

The Climate Change Connection: The Warming Gulf of Maine Needs Protected Areas

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” –President Theodore Roosevelt 

Considering how quickly our planet is warming, and what little is being done to combat it by our national government, this quote has never been more relevant or applicable.

Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF
Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

Here in New England, our ocean is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – with one study showing that the Gulf of Maine is warming 99% faster than ocean waters elsewhere on the planet. If that’s not alarming enough, we’re also seeing whole populations of species (such as lobster) moving toward colder waters – which could spell disaster for New England’s economy. And, we are just beginning to understand the effects of ocean acidification on our shellfish populations, with much more to learn before we’ll know how to adapt.

But, what gives us hope amidst this dire news is that we New Englanders, whose lives – and livelihoods – are intertwined with a healthy ocean, have long been champions and leaders for its protection.

Conservation Law Foundation has advocated for ocean conservation in New England for decades, from our fight to stop oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank in the 70s, to our work to protect our iconic cod fishery from extinction, to our commitment to the state and regional ocean planning processes. Today, we’re rallying the public to support the protection of two of the Atlantic’s most fragile and vulnerable areas – the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts. We’re imploring President Obama to create a Marine National Monument, which can give these special places the highest possible level of protection.

You may be thinking – what does any of this have to do with climate change? The answer is this: Conservation and climate change are inherently connected. President Roosevelt, who uttered the words above, understood the importance of conserving such vital places – he knew that some places were just too beautiful, unique, and fragile to be disturbed or exploited, even if resources such as gold, oil, or gas were to be found there. What he couldn’t have known then is something we do know now: Creating fully protected marine areas is a critical step in our defense against climate change.

Studies of protected areas show that the robust ecosystems they contain are better able to withstand the stress of warming temperatures. The complete and relatively pristine habitats at Cashes Ledge and the Coral Canyons and Seamounts should be kept intact ­– so they can continue to be used as an underwater laboratory for marine scientists as we work urgently to identify how climate change is impacting our oceans and how we can best respond.

If and when the day comes that we are able to stop or even reverse global warming, we need to have done the legwork now to prepare. Will species damaged from warmer temperatures recover and thrive again? Will ocean plant life maintain the ability to provide us with the oxygen we need? Will our children ever get to gaze in wonder at a North Atlantic right whale breaching the ocean’s surface?

We can’t solve climate change in a day. We know it will take a comprehensive, long-term effort. But we should do what can be done today – right now, with what we have, in New England to protect our most significant places for our children and grandchildren. We believe a Marine National Monument designation is the first, best course of action for New England’s ocean right now.

 

Baked Cod: The Path Forward in an Era of Climate Change

In recent weeks, we learned more sobering news for New England’s cod population. A paper published in Science detailed how rapidly increasing ocean temperatures are reducing cod’s productivity and impacting – negatively – the long-term rebuilding potential of New England’s iconic groundfish. The paper confirmed both the theoretical predictions associated with climate change and the recent scientific federal, state, and Canadian trawl surveys that reported a record-low number of cod caught in recent months.

To be clear, the Science authors do not conclude that ocean temperature changes associated with climate change have caused the collapse of cod. We have management-approved overfishing of cod to thank for that.

What rising ocean temperatures do seem to be doing, according to the Science paper, is dramatically changing the productivity of the remaining cod stocks. This makes it more difficult for cod to recover from overfishing today than at any other time in history, and perhaps reduces the ultimate recovery potential even if all fishing were halted. Stock assessments conducted without taking these productivity reductions into full account will dramatically overestimate cod populations and, in turn, fishing quotas.

The Science paper is potentially very important, with major implications for fishing limits on cod for decades to come, But stock assessment scientists have warned for years that their recent models were likely overestimating the amount of cod actually in the water – and the corresponding fishing pressure the stock could withstand. Unfortunately, those warnings have fallen on deaf ears at the New England Fishery Management Council.

In fact, the managers at the Council, dominated by fishermen and state fisheries directors with short-term economic agendas, could hardly have done more than they already have to jeopardize Atlantic cod’s future—climate change or not.

Overfishing, a Weakened Gene Pool, and the Loss of Productive Female Fish

As a result of chronic overfishing, New England’s cod population is likely facing what geneticists call a “population bottleneck,” meaning that the diversity of the remaining cod gene pool is now so greatly reduced that the fish that are left are less resilient to environmental stresses like increasing sea temperatures.

Overfishing has also caused the collapse of the age structure of the cod populations by removing almost all of the larger, more reproductive females (also known as the Big, Old, Fat, Fecund Females, or BOFFFS). Scientists have previously warned that losing these old spawners is a problem for cod productivity, but this new research suggests that the potential damage from their elimination may be significantly greater than imagined as a result of poor, climate change–related ecological conditions.

The Science paper hypothesizes that an underlying factor in the productivity decline of cod this past decade was the correlation between extremely warm spikes in ocean temperatures and the drop in zooplankton species that are critical to the survival of larval cod. With fewer zooplankton, fewer cod larvae make it to their first birthday.

The impacts of this zooplankton decline on cod productivity, however, could be exacerbated by the loss of the BOFFFs. Here’s why:

Cod start to spawn at three to four years old, but young females produce significantly fewer and weaker eggs and cod larvae than their older counterparts. Those elder female fish, on the other hand, produce larger, more viable eggs – sometimes exponentially more healthy eggs – over longer periods of time. If the older female cod population had still been plentiful, they might have produced larvae more capable of surviving variations in zooplankton abundance.

Perhaps the continued presence of larger, older, spawning females to the south of New England (where there is no commercial cod fishery) is one of the reasons that the cod fishery in the nearby warm waters off New Jersey is healthier now than it has been in recent history.

The Cod Aren’t Completely Cooked Yet: Four Potential Solutions

Cod have been in trouble since the 1990s, and now climate change is magnifying these troubles. This new reality, however, is not cause for us to throw in the towel. There are actions that our fishery managers can take now that will make a difference.

First, large cod habitat areas have to be closed to fishingpermanently. This is the only way to protect the large females and increase their number. Designating cod refuges such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area as a marine national monument will remove the temptation for fishery councils – always under pressure to provide access to fish – to reopen them in the future.

Such monuments would also sustain a critical marine laboratory where more of these complex interactions between cod and our changing ocean environment can be studied and understood.

Second, managers need to gain a better understanding of the cod populations south of Cape Cod. While it is well and good to land “monster” female cod on recreational boat trips, those fish may be the key to re-populating Georges Bank. Caution, rather than a free-for-all, is the best course of action until the patterns of movement of those cod populations, as related to ocean temperature increases, are better understood.

Third, as observed in the Science paper, stock assessment models as well as guidance from the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee must start incorporating more ecosystem variables and reflecting a more appropriate level of scientific precaution in the face of the reality of climate change shifts. Enough talk about scientific uncertainty and ecosystem-based fisheries management; action is needed, and science should have the lead in guiding that action.

Finally, the importance of funding data collection and fishery science is evident from this important Science paper, which was supported by private, philanthropic dollars. NOAA should be undertaking this sort of work – but it is not in a position to even provide adequate and timely stock assessments, because limited funding forces the agency to use the existing outdated models.

NOAA’s funding limitations are constraining both collection of the essential field data needed to understand our changing world as well as the analysis of that data into meaningful and appropriate management advice. If Congress can find $33 million to give fishermen for the most recent “groundfish disaster,” it ought to be able to find money to prevent such avoidable disasters in the future.

Ultimately, the Science paper shines some much needed light on our climate change–related fishery issues in New England, but we can’t let it overshadow decades of mismanagement or justify a fatalistic attitude toward cod rebuilding. Steps can and must be taken, and fishery managers are still on the hook for the success or failure of our current and future cod stocks.

Governor Baker: The People Have Spoken, and They Want a Marine National Monument

The people of New England, and especially Massachusetts, have spoken – and they want a Marine National Monument in the Atlantic.

More than 160,000 people have signed their name in support of a monument designation, including over 10,000 from Massachusetts alone. We’ve received public letters of support from coastal businesses, faith-based organizations, and aquaria. And more than 200 U.S. marine scientists, including the most prominent marine ecologists in the region, have stated that the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts hold special ecological value and need permanent protection as national monuments. There is no dispute about the scientific importance or vulnerability of these areas.

Our coalition said: Here’s the science; here’s what’s at stake; here are the risks to these incredible habitats. We asked the public to stand with us in support for permanent protection, and overwhelmingly, they have said – and keep saying – “yes.”

They showed up at an event at the New England Aquarium in the week before Labor Day (when they could have been doing many other things) to learn about these places and what makes them so important. They signed comment cards, and took home buttons and posters to share with colleagues and friends to spread the word. And then they showed up again, when NOAA held a town hall meeting for the express purpose of gathering public feedback. And NOAA is still accepting public comment. The Cashes Ledge Area has been studied for over ten years in a public forum. If that’s not public process, what is?

The Obama Administration should be lauded for seeking to take the steps necessary to protect critical ocean habitats from human threats – which include more than threats from fishing – and therefore require more comprehensive protection than a fishery management council has to offer. A monument is necessary to protect the health of our ocean, restore its natural productivity, and make it resilient to climate change impacts, already putting stress on iconic fish like Atlantic cod.

New Englanders are champions and leaders for the ocean, as evidenced by our commitment to drafting the first-in-the-nation regional ocean plan, due out next year. This plan will make great strides for managing the region’s ocean resources over the long term but it is not at all clear if and when this plan would consider permanent and full habitat protection of vitally important ecological areas like Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts.

A marine monument designation is not an overreach of power, but rather exactly what the Antiquities Act was created to do. These areas are in federal waters and the President has critical stewardship obligations for those resources that transcend fisheries politics. Economically, scientifically, and morally, saving our ocean treasures makes sense. We hope you’ll come to agree with the thousands of people and businesses in Massachusetts who have already stood up for our future.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

“Save the Whales” was a popular cry in the late 1980s to ban commercial whaling worldwide. While progress has certainly been made, this phrase should not be relegated to a dated trope: Many whale populations are still struggling, including our New England’s own North Atlantic Right Whale.

Found from Nova Scotia to Florida, the area from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Cod is essential for this endangered species. Its name comes from the idea that it was the “right” whale to hunt – it was slow-moving and had lots of oil and baleen. Commercial whaling for this species ended in 1935, but these New England whales are still rebuilding.

Zach Klyver, a naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch, has conducted surveys commissioned by the New England Aquarium on whales in the Cashes Ledge Area in the Gulf of Maine. During these winter surveys, Klyer says he saw many right whales breeching just before sunset. According to Klyver, “Cashes Ledge is a significant place for right whales year-round.”

Marine protected areas allow species like the right whale to find refuge from human threats and to thrive. Dr. Scott Kraus, marine scientist at the New England Aquarium, says that the reason Cashes Ledge in particular is important is because “The landscape underwater has a lot of steep angles and hills, so that any water currents rush to the surface. This makes plankton bloom, and it brings fish in – it’s a great restaurant for whales in New England.”

Thriving whale populations also help boost tourism during the popular whale-watching season—more whales means more opportunities for sightseeing. Tourism in New England provides 230,000 jobs and brings in $16 billion – more than all the fisheries, forestry, and agriculture industries combined – making it the life blood of New England’s economy.

An expanding coalition is working to establish permanent protections for Cashes Ledge and another important New England area, the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, by calling on President Obama to establish the first Marine National Monument in the Atlantic. Join the conversation on Twitter: Tweet with #SaveOceanTreasures