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.

 

Shark-Saving Legislation Proposed During Discovery’s “Shark Week”

Just in time for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, a team of United States Senators, led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), has introduced legislation seeking to eliminate U.S. involvement in the global shark fin market.

The bipartisan Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016 aims to protect important shark populations by banning the commercial trade of fins in the United States and by increasing enforcement measures to the existing finning ban. The Senators hope these actions will provide a platform from which the United States can advocate for comprehensive global measures in the future.

The move to ban domestic shark finning began when President Bill Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act in 2000, which made it illegal for United States fishermen to engage in shark finning – but left a significant loophole by not discussing fin trading specifically. Since then, eleven states and three U.S. territories – including Massachusetts –have implemented comprehensive finning bans that close this loophole.

What is Shark Finning?

Shark finning is a brutal practice that occurs when the fins of a shark are cut from the animal and kept for sale while the rest of the shark is tossed back in the water, incapacitated and left to die or be eaten by a predator.

The fins are particularly valued for medicinal purposes as well as for the key ingredient of shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy and status symbol. The price for a single bowl of soup can cost up to $100, making the global fin trade highly profitable despite being increasingly controversial.

At Risk from a Daunting Predator: Humans

All shark species, including the highly endangered scalloped hammerhead, are at risk of falling prey to shark finning. To make matters worse, recent estimates say global shark populations are decreasing at a rate of between 6.4 to 7.9 percent annually. This startling decline is largely caused by finning, overfishing, and from the animals being accidentally caught as bycatch.

Massachusetts is among the U.S. states advocating against shark finning, where there has been a heightened interest in shark research and conservation in part due to the return of great white sharks during recent years.

Groups like the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have been studying New England’s sharks for decades. The Massachusetts Shark Research Program’s shark-tagging research recently resurfaced in the news with the return of Scratchy, the Great White Shark, to Cape Cod’s shores.

Civic Interest in New England

During his tenure as a U.S. Senator for Massachusetts, Secretary John Kerry was a vocal supporter of the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, signed into law in 2011. The act gained bipartisan support and mandated that shark landings must be brought to shore with fins attached, thereby strengthening the Shark Finning Prohibition Act.

And in 2014, nine-year-old Sean Lesniak wrote to his State Representative, David M. Nangle, with a simple request: to allow him to share his passion for sharks with the Massachusetts House and tell them why they were worth saving. In doing so, Lesniak lent his young voice to a long-running conversation about why the Bay State should protect its marine resources. Gaining bipartisan support, the bill successfully banned the possession and sale of shark fins, and was signed by Governor Deval Patrick in July 2014.

Lesniak’s story is a good reminder that civic engagement and education are important conservation tools, and that when used effectively, can help ensure that shark populations are saved – and that events like Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

With the Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act of 2016, the United States Senate has the opportunity to elevate global awareness of this issue and make shark conservation a more concrete reality. Contact your Senator today to ask him or her to support this legislation.

 

 

Misguided Canadian Pipeline Proposal Would More Than Double Oil Tanker Traffic Through the Gulf of Maine

This is the third in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the first blog, introducing the problem with Nova Scotia’s new exploration leases and the threats they pose to endangered whales here. The second blog in the series unpacks the long-term, big picture impacts for oil exploration in New England. 

TransCanada, of Keystone XL infamy, submitted a revised application recently for its Energy East proposal, a pipeline that would transport millions of gallons of dirty tar sands oil to New Brunswick for refining. That refined petroleum product would then be shipped through the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, and on to locations around the world.

The proposal significantly increases the risk of an oil spill in the Gulf of Maine, which would cause calamitous and lasting damage to its fragile ecosystems.

TransCanada proposes to move this toxic brew more than a thousand miles through converted pipelines that had once been used to transport natural gas ­– and then to store it at a facility in Saint John that will increase its storage capacity to 13.2 million barrels (at 42 gallons to the barrel, that is more than half a billion gallons of oil)!

To export such a high volume, the number of oil super tankers plying the waters of the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine would more than double – from 115 to more than 280 per year.

A New Caliber of Disaster Potential

Tar sands oil is the most destructive, carbon intensive of all liquid fuels, and keeping tar sands in the ground is critical if we are serious about meeting the goals agreed upon at the climate talks in Paris last December.

When spilled, tar sands oil is also far more dangerous to habitat and animals due to its chemical makeup and viscosity. The aftermath of an Exxon Valdez-like spill from a super tanker carrying tar sands oil would be especially catastrophic.

Bitumen – the substance that results from mixing gritty tar sands oil with natural gas components to make it easier to transport – sinks quickly upon hitting the water. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which advises the U.S. Congress, no one is prepared to appropriately respond to a tar sands oil spill in water. Not first responders, not governments, not even the industry itself has the knowledge or technology to remedy a tar sands oil spill in the ocean.

This makes the risk to the critically important and ecologically sensitive areas in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine simply unacceptable. Let’s remember that the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than almost any other bay, sea or ocean in the world, making it especially vulnerable.

The currents and circulation patterns in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine would sweep any oil escaping a tanker into the Canadian Maritimes and coastal Maine waters, and would certainly disrupt the one remaining consistently productive fishing area on Georges Bank as well. A spill similar to the Exxon Valdez disaster could stretch from Canadian waters to Cape Cod.

Canada’s insistence on investing in such a finite, harmful resource as tar sands oil is shortsighted and incredibly risky. Adding such an unnecessary man-made threat to our ocean is a risk we New Englanders simply can’t afford.

Update: On Jan. 21, 2016, the Montreal Metropolitan Community – representing 3.9 million Canadians – said it will not support the Energy East proposal, delivering the largest blow to the project and putting pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reject it.

Oil Exploration Threatens New England Waters and Economy

This is the second in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the first blog, introducing the problem with Nova Scotia’s new exploration leases and the threats they pose to endangered whales here. The final blog will cover the approval of major increases in oil tanker traffic through the Bay of Fundy and along the coast of the Atlantic.    

Oil exploration. Pipelines. Tar sands. Oil tankers. Spills. These should be words of our past, not our future.

 

Yet at a time when climate change is one of the most – if not the most – pressing issue facing modern society, some recent developments involving these terms have me scratching my head. First, our Canadian neighbors just approved new oil exploration leases to the south of Nova Scotia that come disturbingly close to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, areas known to be sensitive to environmental shocks.

And now, TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline proposal, submitted last week, would more than double the number of oil tankers carrying tar sands oil – from 115 to more than 280 each year – through the Bay of Fundy and down New England’s coast.

Double the tankers means double the risk for a catastrophic accident or oil spill. Just one major spill could devastate our most precious underwater wild places, while destroying the livelihoods of fishermen and coastal communities that depend on a healthy ocean to survive.

Climate change compels us to move away from fossil fuels, yet oil companies press on searching every nook and cranny of the planet to find it, not minding the disturbances and threats they’re posing to vulnerable ecosystems, endangered species, and local economies.

Drilling Deja-vu

This isn’t the first time oil or gas exploration has threatened the Gulf of Maine. Since the 1970s, energy companies have clamored for approval to drill for oil and gas deposits along the Atlantic coastline, including the U.S.-controlled portion of Georges Bank and along the coast of Canada.

In 1978, Conservation Law Foundation partnered with fishermen and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to block oil exploration on Georges Bank – winning the first successful injunction against offshore drilling in the United States. CLF argued that oil leasing was inconsistent with the then two-year-old federal fisheries law (now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act) because the risks were potentially catastrophic to the marine wildlife the region’s fishermen depend on to make a living.

Ultimately, in the early 1980s, an exploratory dig was approved but turned up no oil in Georges Bank. Led by New England’s Congressional delegation, CLF persuaded Congress to pass a funding moratorium on all future Georges Bank drilling. Canadian fishermen and activists soon followed suit, citing the U.S.’s example to fight off similar drilling efforts on their side of Georges Bank. A Canadian drilling moratorium on Georges Bank was established in 1988, and now extends to 2022.

In 2008, the U.S. moratorium was lifted and exploration off our shores is now only blocked by soft, interim no-drill agreements. Meanwhile, with our northern neighbor more aggressively pursuing offshore oil and gas, Canadian leases in the North Atlantic Ocean have been steadily marching south, getting closer and closer to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.

Too Close for Comfort

To make matters worse, Canada has permitted the oil companies drilling nearby – such as the one at Shelburne Basin, just 75 miles east of Georges Bank – to forego keeping emergency equipment close at hand. This allows them almost two weeks to cap an oil well blowout should an accident occur, effectively sanctioning the catastrophic damage a blowout would cause. In comparison, in U.S. waters surrounding Alaska, oil companies have a maximum of 24 hours to put emergency caps on drilling blow-outs.

The risk to New England from the explorations in Shelburne Basin and other areas east of Georges Bank? Toxins could get caught up in the pronounced southwest-flowing Maine Coastal Current that’s instrumental in lobster larvae distribution throughout coastal Maine – dealing a potentially devastating blow to Maine’s most important fishery.

And the dispersants used in the cleanup of a spill can be even more harmful to sea life than the oil itself. Toxic pollutants from the Canadian sites east of Georges Bank could easily get picked up by the upwelling currents that account for the legendary productivity of the Georges Bank system – transforming those upwelling currents from being life-giving to life-taking.

The increased risks in the U.S. from Canadian exploratory drilling may seem remote but they are, nonetheless, real and potentially catastrophic. Industry claims of safety are belied by real, recent disasters like the massive Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

These encroaching Canadian leases also create a troubling precedent. Once oil or gas drilling begins in this area of the North Atlantic – even if it is technically across the border – the arguments to maintain “no-drill” agreements in the U.S. are weakened. And although there is little industry interest in Georges Bank for oil, the industrial appetite for developing natural gas wells so close to the U.S. northeast is likely growing – and who knows what that future might hold.

The Big Picture for New England

The threat from offshore oil development isn’t just to marine wildlife, but also to our New England way of life: fishing, surfing, whale watching, beach combing (and the millions of tourist dollars that go along with them) – so much of our economy depends on a healthy ocean, clean beaches, and abundant marine wildlife.

From start to finish – preliminary seismic testing, drilling, oil spills, chemicals used in cleanup, and transport – the marine oil and gas exploration and drilling process is risky, harmful, and unnecessary. Further environmental review will be required in Canada before production drilling could start. The U.S. State Department needs to protest any further activities as forcefully as possible.

New England is already at risk from climate change, above and below the water. Sea level rise threatens coastal communities. Rapidly warming waters cause species to move away in search of colder temperatures, potentially eliminating fisheries that have sustained regional economies for generations. Increasing ocean acidity jeopardizes the two most significant fisheries in New England: lobsters and sea scallops.

The last thing we need are more man-made threats to our ocean and all that it represents for us as New Englanders.

 

Happy New Year from New England Ocean Odyssey!

Happy New Year, New England ocean lovers! Here are some of New England Ocean Odyssey’s highlights from 2015:

We featured some special species from areas rarely seen with the human eye:

Atlantic Treasures of the Deep

We brought you news about the threats facing our ocean’s wildlife – from overfishing and poor fishery management, to climate change, to oil exploration.

Exploring for Oil Off Nova Scotia Threatens Ocean Wildlife and Our Coastal Economy

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

Fishery Council Vote: Major Losses Overshadow Small Victories

We featured sea creatures each week with our summer Fish Friday series.

Fish Friday Finale

And we went back for another dive at Cashes Ledge.

Beyond the data: Captivating moments at Cashes Ledge

Dive in on Cashes Ledge 2.0

In the fall, we ramped up our efforts to permanently protect Cashes Ledge and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

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

We learned that climate change is exacerbating an already poor outlook for Atlantic cod in New England.

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

Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

In 2016, we’ll keep fighting for a healthy ocean in New England, to protect our wildlife and our coastal communities. Thank you for your support!

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.

Congressman Boehlert: New England’s ocean treasures deserve protection

This post is an excerpt from an opinion piece in The Patriot Ledger, in which former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (Republican, former Chair of the House Science Committee) expresses his support of Marine National Monument designation in New England. You can read the entire piece here.

In 2006, President George W. Bush wisely used his presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to protect a vital ocean ecosystem off the coast of Hawaii. Two years later, again in the Pacific, he protected other critically important marine areas characterized by reefs, atolls and vast underwater canyons.

All together he created four Marine National Monuments covering more than 600,000 square miles. Preserving these ecologically important marine habitats was essential for the residents of Hawaii, Guam and other Pacific islands, who depend heavily on a healthy and productive ocean. These monuments enjoy overwhelming local support.

Here in the Northeast we rely on a healthy and productive Atlantic Ocean, which is why I was thrilled to learn that the Obama Administration is considering the same protection for New England’s coral canyons and seamounts, a biologically critical area of ocean 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

True to its name, this area is characterized by underwater canyons – some of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon – and mountains extending up to 7,000 feet from the ocean floor. It is a unique underwater environment that hosts a rich and diverse array of life, which is crucial to the health and resilience of New England’s ocean fish and marine mammal populations.

The many colorful cold-water corals that inhabit these canyons and seamounts, some of which are the size of small trees, take centuries to grow and were alive back in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt was signing the Antiquities Act into law.

And with the livelihood of so many, along with the maritime culture and heritage of our coastal communities, hinging on responsible ocean stewardship, this is an area that clearly should be the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monument.

Continue reading in The Patriot Ledger.

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.