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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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