Now is the Time to be Part of Ocean Planning in New England!

Amazing wildlife like this feeding humpback whale, gorgeous scenery, a natural playground to enjoy with our children – there are so many reasons to appreciate New England’s ocean. But there is also an unprecedented amount of change in the ocean right now: renewable energy has hit the water, our fisheries are in tremendous flux and some of our most iconic and economically important stocks are in true peril, our waters are rapidly warming and getting more acidic, and we are seeing accelerating coastal erosion in some of our most heavily developed shorelines.

 

The consequences of coastal erosion in New England are likely to be sever in the coming decades, as seen on the coast of Plymouth, MA. Photo by David L. Ryan of the Boston Globe.
The consequences of coastal erosion in New England are likely to be sever in the coming decades, as seen on the coast of Plymouth, MA. Photo by David L. Ryan of the Boston Globe.

 

NOW is the time for you to be part of the planning process that is taking place to better coordinate our coastal and ocean uses in the face of all these changes. Everyone who cares about the ocean and how we use it should have a voice in the planning – a “seat at the table.”

 

 

Ralf Meyer, Green Fire Productions Creative Director, on location in Boston Harbor. Photo by Green Fire Productions.
Ralf Meyer, Green Fire Productions Creative Director, on location filming Ocean Frontiers in Boston Harbor. Photo by Green Fire Productions.

 

How can you get involved?

Learn about ocean planning! There is a fantastic new film called Ocean Frontiers that tells stories about ocean planning from people and places that might surprise you: farmers in Iowa, shipping companies in New England, and fishermen in Oregon – all committed to planning and doing things better for ocean health. Find an Ocean Frontiers screening near you, or host your own!

Be part of the process! We are in the throes of a first-in-the-nation regional ocean planning process, and we need you to get involved! The Northeast Regional Planning Body is holding a series of public meetings throughout New England to tell people what’s going on in ocean planning and to find out what your questions and comments are. This process is so much more effective and meaningful when people who care about the management of our ocean and coasts get involved.

Stay Informed! We will keep bringing you stories about ocean planning here and at CLF.org. Check out the New England Ocean Action Network  to stay up on the latest planning news. NEOAN is a network of diverse groups – fishermen, surfers, aquariums, conservationists, renewable energy developers, and others – who all support the ocean planning process in New England.

Does New England’s ocean inspire you, comfort you, or leave you awestruck? If you care about the ocean, then make your connection with the sea part of our new ocean planning story.

Flying Below the Radar: Stellwagen’s Stealthy Whales

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, some of the scientists and experts there are introducing us to the fascinating research and activities they are involved with. David Wiley, the Sanctuary’s Research Coordinator, talks about one of the most interesting – but difficult to study – residents of Stellwagen Bank. — Ed.

Is there such a thing as an animal that is 55 feet long, weighs 50 tons and is almost invisible? If such a creature did exist, how would you study it? That animal does exist and it’s called a humpback whale, one of the most famous citizens of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. As the sanctuary research coordinator, one of my jobs is to figure out how to study these invisible giants that spend 90% of their time underwater and out of sight. When I first began studying humpback and other large whales more than 20 years ago, we took pictures of them at the surface, wrote down the timing of their breaths, recorded the other animals they were with, and dreamed of being able to follow them into the depths of the ocean and their lives.

Today, those dreams have become reality, made possible by two technological innovations: DTAGs (Digital Acoustic Recording Tags) and National Geographic Crittercams. The DTAG is a synchronous motion, acoustic recording tag invented by our friend Mark Johnson when he was at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. DTAGs are small computers attached to the whales via suction-cups that hold onto the animals for about 24 hours (see above photo). They collect a suite of data including body pitch, roll, heading, and depth, while recording sounds that the whale makes and hears. To make use of the DTAG, we have a team of 14 scientists working on the project.

 

A 3D trackplot map shows a humpback whale using bubbles to corral fish. Data was recorded by a DTAG placed on the animal’s back. Credit: SBNMS and UNH Advanced Data Visualization Laboratory.

 

For the past 9 summers, these scientists have journeyed to the sanctuary to unlock the secrets of humpback whale behavior. Each scientist has a particular team function. For example, Colin Ware, who is the head of the University of New Hampshire’s Advanced Data Visualization Laboratory, takes the DTAG data and turns it into amazing 3D maps of the whale’s behavior and movements (see image above), Elliot Hazen, of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center uses SIMRAD Echosounders to map schools of sand lance prey, and Allison Stimpert, a National Research Council post-doc, examines how the whales use sound. To date, our team has published 10 research papers in scientific journals unveiling humpback life in and around the sanctuary.

In 2011, we teamed up with the Remote Imaging Program at National Geographic to get an entirely different view of humpback life. This effort uses a Crittercam. The miniature camera also attaches to a whale’s back with a suction-cup and provides an animal-based video observation of the whale’s behavior and surroundings. The Crittercam’s wide angle lens often captures images of numerous other animals, letting us watch multiple whales at the same time.

These two technologies have allowed us to begin to see our invisible whales for the first time. We have learned how they blow bubbles to capture fast moving fish and how they feed along the seabed where the whales are vulnerable to commercial fishing gear. Sharing our unique views with fisherman and shippers has helped us come to a common understanding of how whales behave and, in some cases, how they can be protected.

Top photo: A Stellwagen Bank sanctuary humpback whale sports a DTAG and Crittercam.
Credit: SBNMS file photo by Ari Friedlaender. Photo taken under NOAA Fisheries Permit # 14245.

Booming New England Seal Population Creates a Management Challenge

Note: This originally ran on Talking Fish on September 18th. Photograph by Rich MacDowell as entered in the New England Ocean Odyssey photo contest

Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972, forty years ago. Intended to slow the precipitous decline of marine mammal populations due to human activities, the act prohibited the killing, harassment, or excessive disturbance of marine mammals in United States waters.

For seals in New England—mainly harbor seals and gray seals—the MMPA’s protections effected a massive boom in population. Previously, the animals were considered a nuisance to fishermen and tourists. Coastal states frequently offered bounties for the killing of seals. One study estimates that between 1888 and 1962, over 100,000 seals were killed in the bounty hunt in Maine and Massachusetts alone. This mass killing was enough to trigger significant regional declines in numbers. In 1973, a survey of Maine waters counted just 5,800 harbor seals; this was likely almost the entire population at that time.

The MMPA effectively stopped the bounty hunt in its tracks, and seal numbers have risen rapidly as a result. Each female harbor seal pups once a year and survival rates in New England without predators are high. In 2001, the estimated population of harbor seals in New England had recovered to 99,340 individuals; the observed number rose by 28.7% just between 1997 and 2001. Gray seals have seen a similar increase in numbers. On Muskeget Island, just 19 adult gray seals were observed in 1994; in 2011, a census estimated between 3500 and 3800 seals. The overall observed population of gray seals in Massachusetts has increased from 5,611 to 15,756 between 1999 and 2011.

This booming, unrestricted seal population has costs.  Seals eat commercially valuable fish like cod and herring, often taking the catch right out of fishermen’s nets. They can also cause costly damage to fishing gear. In 2011, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans determined that gray seals were hindering cod stock recovery, and the minister of fisheries proposed a cull of 140,000 seals.  It’s possible they may be having a similar effect in the Gulf of Maine.

To some degree, nature is responding to this abundant, high value food source. Rising seal numbers have been linked to the apparent increase in great white sharks around Cape Cod, particularly near the large seal colonies on Muskeget and Monomoy. Sightings of great whites have increased notably in the past decade, and this summer, a swimmer off Cape Cod was attacked by one for the first time since 1936. Killer whales and other high level predators also once controlled seals in this region and may return in the future in greater numbers.

In the mean time, seals are becoming a growing political problem. A local fisherman recently pointed out the seal problem to John Bullard, the new Regional Administrator for NOAA, at an open meeting in Scituate. Tensions are also rising between the seals and local residents. Last summer, five gray seals were found shot on Cape Cod beaches.

Coming to agreement about the appropriate management response to this situation is challenging. On one hand, the rising numbers can be viewed as a remarkable success of the MMPA and a return to natural conditions. One conservation response is to argue that the seal population will start to limit itself as numbers approach carrying capacity or as recovering shark numbers or other marine predators catch up with the new abundance of prey. On the other hand, some stakeholders have called for new, direct methods to limit seal numbers, including culling. The Seal Abatement Coalition has circulated a petition calling for “an amendment or exception to the Marine Mammal Protection Act which would permit the humane dispersion of [gray] seals.”

The original text of the MMPA allows the secretary of commerce to make some exceptions to the no-take rules, taking into account “the conservation, development, and utilization of fishery resources,” provided that “the taking of such marine mammal is in accord with sound principles of resource protection and conservation.” These have included the issuance of permits for marine mammals caught incidentally by commercial fishing operations. NOAA has also previously allowed the dispersion of sea lions in California that damage fishing gear and has permitted the killing of sea lions that were eating endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that culling of New England’s seals will be allowed.  Beachgoers like spotting these charismatic animals and seal watching tours have become popular in some coastal communities. Harbor and gray seals are not widely regarded by the public as a nuisance, unlike California sea lions. In this context, it would take an “act of god” (as one state administrator put it)—or at the very least an act of Congress—to begin culling seals in New EnglandAs a Chatham fisherman told NPR last month, “There’s not a congressman in his right mind that’s going to be the first one out that says, ‘Let’s go harvest seals.’” Even with fisheries, the case for seal culling is modest. A recent study suggests that even if marine mammals were completely removed from the environment, potential catch from fisheries may not be dramatically improved.

There may be technologies that act or could act to reduce seal-fishing gear interactions non-lethally. “Pingers” like those used to deter porpoises from gill nets could be used to scare seals away from fishing gear. Still, this technology could be expensive to implement and may be ineffective on seals, which are highly intelligent animals and might even become attracted to the noise over time as they learn to associate it with readily available fish.

The solutions to New England’s exploding seal populations are not obvious, but the pressure for responses is growing and will continue to build. Seals are no longer just the stuff of children’s books and aquaria exhibits; they are back in force and growing rapidly. Natural seal mortality rates will undoubtedly increase over time, but as long as people and seals are both chasing after the same scarce fish resources, soon may not be soon enough for some.