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

 

The New England Ocean Odyssey Photo Contest is Back for the Summer!

The New England Ocean Odyssey photo contest is back! The new contest will run from July 29 through Labor Day (September 7, 2015), exclusively on Instagram, using the hashtag #SeeMySeaStory. Photo contest winner

New Englanders experience the ocean in a multitude of ways. This summer’s contest encourages anyone who has an ocean story to showcase it — whether under, on, or near the water!

Maybe you have a great photo of Acadia, Cape Cod, a fishing or sailing trip, or something else from New England’s long, winding shore? Share them with us! All you need to do to enter the contest is to post your photo on Instagram and include the hashtag. Two winners will be selected throughout the time period, and one after the contest closes.

Winners will receive a photo book from renowned National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, and/or exclusive New England Ocean Odyssey “swag” — along with the opportunity to showcase your photo on the New England Ocean Odyssey website and social media.

Need inspiration? Check out prior winning images.

If selected, CLF will request the original image be emailed to a staff member, so we can feature a high quality version in our materials.

Questions? Contact Amanda Yanchury at ayanchury@clf.org or 617-350-0990. See official rules.

 

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.

Getting acquainted with New England’s oceans: Finding my sea legs

Oceans Communications Associate Amanda Yanchury recounts her experience joining the diving team for a day at the Isles of Shoals.

Hailing from the land of 10,000 lakes (Minnesota), and having spent the last couple of years near a beach in San Diego, I’ve been lucky to have exposure to different types of water. However, as a recent New England transplant, I admit to knowing very little about the Atlantic Ocean in New England – and as the new Oceans Communication Associate for the Conservation Law Foundation, I have a lot to learn!

AllisonAmandaRVTioga That’s why I jumped at the chance to spend a day accompanying the CLF-sponsored dive team at work off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine collecting scientific data and photographic and filming the unique marine wildlife at Isles of Shoals and Cashes Ledge.

I arrived excited to get out to sea. Unfortunately, the ocean didn’t return the sentiment. As soon as we made it to our destination at Isles of Shoals’ Mingo Rock, I started to feel seasick. Any slight amusement over being hired to work for the oceans program despite not being able to be on the ocean was quickly overtaken by an unyielding nausea.

I’ll spare you the details, and will just say that thanks to the expert advice of the divers and the well-equipped captain (the Dramamine was a lifesaver!), I mercifully started to perk up towards the end of the day – in time to chat with the researchers and underwater photographers, and view some amazing photos of the colorful kelp, fish, seals and other marine wildlife.

Habitat protection matters

My unfortunate first experience on the sea is a reminder that the ocean is a powerful body. Within it, entire ecosystems exist – preserving those ecosystems will have lasting implications for the coastal economy and for maintaining healthy oceans into the future.

Cashes Ledge, for example, is an underwater mountain range that is a vital refuge for a remarkable host of species – from wolffish to sea stars, to the Atlantic cod that’s seeing historic lows in abundance. Protected areas like Cashes Ledge are a key component of the long term plan to rebuild New England’s depleted populations of cod, flounders, and other groundfish that in turn provide delicious seafood and support our centuries-old fishing industry. Cashes Ledge and other protected areas are also important for for scientific research and discovery around the effects of climate change on ocean habitats and wildlife.

During my day on the boat, I learned about Dr. Jon Witman’s research on coastal and offshore ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine and the changes in kelp and fish abundance over time. His team is currently collecting data to provide the scientific information that will shape the future of Cashes Ledge.

Dr. Witman’s research is especially relevant because of the continued conversations regarding protected areas: which areas receive which levels of protection, as determined by New England’s regional fishery management council and NOAA. These bodies rely on scientific recommendations for understanding which areas to keep closed, and which should be opened. Just this week, however, the New England Fishery Management Council passed a plan that cut protected habitat areas by 60 percent, despite the science recommending otherwise.

As I’m learning about these critically important areas, I’m wondering how much people know about the world that is just out of sight under the water’s surface. Do they know that Cashes Ledge’s kelp forest is the largest and deepest along the Atlantic seaboard? Or that we have coral beds that take centuries to grow, providing food, spawning habitat, and shelter for an array of fish and invertebrate species? Or that some of the deep-sea canyons just off of Georges Bank rival the Grand Canyon in scale?

Do they know about the lasting effects of overfishing? Are they aware about the ways in which the planned uses of the ocean and shoreline can affect their communities?

Our goal here at Conservation Law Foundation is to help people find answers to those questions so they can learn about New England’s oceans and the consequences of our choices and make good decisions about the future of our ocean. We’re not afraid to take on opponents who value short-term profit over long-term sustainability as we seek to inform communities about the importance of ocean issues.

On the Research Vessel Tioga, we were lucky to get a hands-on view of what it takes to conduct research in the ocean, and were allowed a rare view into the experience of exploring and caring for this underwater world.

In New England, ocean habitats matter. Take it from me – this ocean is a force not to be ignored.

To see pictures from this month’s dive, check out New England Ocean Odyssey on Facebook.

Welcome to the New and Improved New England Ocean Odyssey!

We are excited to officially announce the new layout of New England Ocean Odyssey and the new features the site has to offer!

As always NEOO is dedicated to sharing the beauty of New England’s ocean with you, and there are now even more ways for you to keep engaged.

  • Let Brian Skerry’s breathtaking photographs amaze you when you browse the Ocean Galleries, where you’ll also find pictures from our previous NEOO photo contest winners.
  • Learn more about New England’s special marine environments on the Cashes Ledge page where you can watch underwater footage and view spectacular images that capture the beauty of the deepest and largest kelp forest on the Atlantic coast.
  • If you haven’t already signed the “Protect Cashes Ledge” letter, the Take Action page will link you directly to Conservation Law Foundation’s page where you can support permanent protection for Cashes Ledge today!
  • You can also support New England Ocean Odyssey itself by going to the new Give
  • Find out about who we are on the About page and learn more about Brian Skerry and CLF as well.

And of course, the New England Ocean Odyssey Blog will continue to take you on a journey beneath New England’s waves and share fascinating stories and vibrant images of what makes our ocean so unique. You can scroll through the Homepage images where you’ll find links to our featured stories and the latest blog post.

Thank you for supporting New England Ocean Odyssey, and be sure to sign up for our News and Alerts emails to stay up to date. We look forward to exploring New England’s ocean with you all!

Cunner – Color in the Kelp Forest

Who is this brilliant orange fish lighting up Cashes Ledge? It’s a charming little cunner. Are they always this colorful? Well, as Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder said so well in their classic work Fishes of the Gulf of Maine: “To describe the color of the cunner is to list all the colors of the bottoms on which it lives, for it is one of the most variable of fishes.” Maybe that’s the case, but the Cashes Ledge cunner are especially fetching, we think.

Brian Skerry was struck by the vivid colors of these cunner when he visited Cashes Ledge recently. He said they were “quite stunning, like the garibaldi in California.” Ranging from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Chesapeake Bay, cunner are common inshore fish in the Gulf of Maine, but Cashes Ledge provides ample offshore habitat and some of this fish’s favorite foods: including shrimp, lobsters, mussels, and sea urchins.

Diminutive in stature, cunner don’t get very big – up to a foot or so, and weighing less than 3 pounds –  but what they lack in dimension they make up for in dazzle.

Basking Sharks – A Big Fish Story

We’ve shown some amazing pictures of predatory sharks this week, but the biggest shark in New England’s waters is a gentle giant, feeding on tiny crab-like creatures called copepods. The basking shark, so named because it is often observed feeding near the surface,“basking” in the sun, is not only big, but is still a huge scientific mystery.

I recently caught up with one of our New England ocean celebrities, Greg Skomal, noted shark expert and Senior Fisheries Biologist with the State of Massachusetts, who filled me in on the state of basking shark knowledge.

Robin: How often do you encounter basking sharks in your work?

Greg: If we’re actively working on them, we find them frequently.

Robin: How do you know where to find them?

Greg: We use a spotter plane. Also, fishermen and whale watchers will help us figure out where the sharks are.

Robin: Have you spent much time in the water with basking sharks?

Greg: I have – some of that work has been to tag them underwater using a pole spear, but I’ve also filmed and photographed them.

Robin: How do they behave around humans?

Greg: They are generally shy, but I see two kinds of behavior. It’s either one or two sharks moving in straight line, searching or going someplace – cruising. If you want to dive with them you get the boat to put you right in their path, but they tend to get out of your way pretty quickly. The other kind is group behavior – small to large aggregations. You just jump into the water with them. Individuals will start to dive, but the group as a whole continues to feed.

The best way to dive on basking sharks is to find a group of them.

Robin: Do you ever feel any threat from them?

Greg: No, but I will say it’s an overwhelming experience because of their sheer size, so there’s some anxiety about just being in the water with such a big animal.

Robin: How big do they get?

Greg: They’ll get in excess of 30 feet long. I’ve seen two that big – beached animals. Much of what we know about basking sharks comes from beached animals.

Robin: What can you say about the shark in this photograph?

Greg: Here’s the fascinating thing about this picture – the snout on this animal is more pointed than on the average basking shark, which tells me it’s a juvenile and probably not very big. Basking sharks are born with a pointed snout, and they lose that over time and it becomes more rounded.

Robin: Why does that happen?

Greg: We don’t know a lot about the biology of these critters – about the changing of morphology and shedding of the gill rakers. For the second largest fish on earth we know amazingly little about its natural history.

Robin: What do you mean by shedding of gill rakers?

Greg: Gill rakers are used to sift plankton – like baleen in a whale. Basking sharks shed their gill rakers over the winter. Because of this, and their disappearance in the winter, scientists in the 1940s and 50s hypothesized that the sharks went to the bottom of ocean to hibernate.

This theory was published in a scientific journal, and was accepted for many years, until we started tracking them recently. It wasn’t until the turn of century that we started tagging these sharks and found out where they do go.

Previous scientists were correct that the basking sharks in the eastern Atlantic go deep and move off the shallow shelves, but they don’t go far. They just move to deep water where they don’t interact with humans and so were not encountered. This was discovered by David Sims and his crew in tagging studies. He was the first to demonstrate that they don’t hibernate.

So, we did same studies here on the western side of the Atlantic, but found that our basking sharks do something very different. They go to deep water, but they also go really far away. We published a paper in 2009 showing that they move to tropical areas: the Bahamas, the Caribbean, even south of the equator to Brazil. They make very broad migratory movements – some of the greatest ever described by science for a fish. But they still stay at great depths (3,000 feet or more) when they move.

Robin: Why do they go so deep?

Greg: You just asked the best question there is. We don’t know why. We hypothesize that movements of fish are driven by food and reproduction. We know they could go somewhere besides the tropics to get all food they need, so they might be traveling there to reproduce. They might come to the Gulf of Maine to mate, and then pregnant females might move south to gestate.

Robin: So they might be like right whales?

Greg: They do show up where right whales go, but they also go much further south. They go from the Gulf of Maine to south of equator. It must be energetically beneficial to do this, otherwise, why do it? But we can’t prove it yet.

Robin: Have you noticed a change in their numbers or distribution over the years?

Greg: It’s tough to know. The general thinking is populations are down in the Pacific, and perhaps the eastern Atlantic. But we don’t know about the western Atlantic. We don’t have populations trends here because we don’t have the data.

Robin: What are the greatest threats to basking sharks?

Greg: Bycatch, right now. They are sometimes taken by fixed gear as bycatch, in lobster, conch, or any other kinds of traps. Sharks inadvertently get wrapped in lines. Sometimes they get caught in bottom trawls and gill nets.

We don’t know what the implications of climate change will be. Maybe there will be a shift to the north, or a shift vertically in the water column. If you can determine what’s going to happen with the copepods they eat, you’ll have better sense of what might happen to basking sharks.

It’s an amazing species – phenomenal to be in the water with. I’ve put a lot of time into studying them and hope to continue to do so.

Atlantic Wolffish – Cool as Sharks, Hotter than Shark Week

Some people are enraptured by the fearsome predatory nature of sharks. The image of the omnipotent king of the seas, roaming the deep and preying on any hapless creature small or large, holds a permanent niche in the American psyche. Sharks are cool, there is no doubt. Just look at the media celebration known as Shark Week, which happens every summer. Don’t worry, we get shark fever too, and Brian Skerry has some incredible new shark photos, which we’ll be debuting soon.

 

However, let’s not allow the annual shark-mania to block out the real glamour of other denizens of the deep, which reside at Cashes Ledge and in other spots across the Gulf of Maine. My favorite creature is the Atlantic wolffish, also known as the sea wolf. (This animal is so cool they named a whole class of attack submarines after it and the sports teams at a New England college.) If there is an animal that illustrates both the wonderful diversity of New England’s ocean and the need for protecting habitat for ocean wildlife, it is the Atlantic wolffish. If there is a special place in New England’s ocean worthy of providing better and more permanent protection it is Cashes Ledge.

 

We’ve talked about these toothy fish before, but they merit lots of discussion given how important they are to our Gulf of Maine ecosystem and how much they need our protection. Atlantic wolffish population numbers have taken a perilous decline since the early 1980s. The threats from commercial fishing practices – especially bottom trawling gear –has not only decimated wolffish populations but destroyed the type of rocky underwater habitat which they depend upon. For a species that absolutely needs rocky outcrops and small cave-like structures, the impacts to their habitat are particularly harmful.

 

By 2006, Atlantic Wolffish populations across the Gulf of Maine had declined to a point where serious action was needed. Then the Conservation Law Foundation and Dr. Erica Fuller prepared and filed a petition to protect the wolffish under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. The petition received enough attention for this “gruesome fish” that the National Marine Fisheries Service eventually placed a complete restriction on harvest and possession of Atlantic wolffish across the North Atlantic. This falls short of the full protection warranted under the ESA, but since the wolffish can be successfully caught and released, this temporary fishing regulation gives the wolffish population enough limited protection to recover while further studies are done.

 

The rocky slopes of Cashes Ledge provide excellent habitat for the wolffish, and Cashes Ledge is an even more important area since the destructive bottom trawling gear has been banned year-round there since 2002 through fishery management regulations put into place by the New England Fishery Management Council.