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


North Atlantic Right Whale Mysteries – the Plot Thickens

North Atlantic right whales – our critically endangered New England natives – are making more waves this week in the news. A mother and calf, like the ones Brian photographed above, were spotted off the coast of Plymouth, MA on Saturday. For an imperiled population of less than 500 individuals, in which every animal counts, this birth is a great thing. But the timing of the mother’s return to the Gulf of Maine with her calf is extremely curious. Our right whales head south to have their calves, and don’t usually return until April, possibly to take advantage of spring plankton blooms. These two are among the growing ranks of right whales who buck tradition and turn up early. This particular pair is so early that scientists have called it “mind-blowing.” What’s going on? Scientists are still investigating these early arrivals, and have speculated that the whales are simply following the food, which may be available at different times in our warming ocean. We’ll keep you posted as they work to unravel the mystery and, hopefully, help these endangered whales recover.

Healthy Habitat Helps Create Healthy Fisheries

One of the fundamental concepts of marine ecology and modern fisheries management is that fish and other ocean wildlife need various types of habitat to feed, grow and reproduce.  Healthy ocean habitat is crucial to the wellbeing of ocean ecosystems and also provides spawning grounds for commercially important groundfish. New England’s ocean waters are home to several special places that deserve permanent protection.

Cashes Ledge, is one of those places. We’ve talked about Cashes Ledge many times on the New England Ocean Odyssey, and there’s a reason we keep bringing it up. An underwater mountain range 80 miles off the coast of Maine, Cashes Ledge supports the largest and deepest kelp forest off the Northeastern United States and is home to a vast diversity of ocean wildlife, from whales, Atlantic wolffish, and blue sharks, to fields of anemones and sponges. The ledge’s peak, known as Ammen Rock (shown above), comes to within 40 feet of the surface.

This place really is special – but don’t take our word for it, check out the video above and see what Brian Skerry has to say about Cashes Ledge – a place unlike any he’s ever seen.

Other places such as Jeffreys Ledge and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary provide rich habitat for highly depleted cod and haddock, sea turtles, and several species of endangered whales.

Most of these three areas in the Gulf of Maine currently benefit from fishing regulations which prohibit harmful bottom trawling, but these protections are temporary. Some of the largest commercial fishing trawlers in the region are pushing for changes in regulations to allow bottom trawling in Cashes Ledge, Jeffreys Ledge and the only protected portion of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

After the last cod crisis in the 1990s the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), after a court decree spurred by a CLF legal action, designated Cashes Ledge and an area known as the “Western Gulf of Maine” which holds Jeffreys Ledge and 22% of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, as “mortality closures.” The action restricted destructive trawling, but it allowed a wide array of other commercial fishing gear such as bottom gillnets, purse seines, hook and line and more the questionable practice of “mid-water trawls,” which despite their name, often catch groundfish. Recreational fishing and charter boats were not restricted. This single protective measure restricting commercial bottom trawling helped to restore seriously depleted populations in these areas. Moreover, protecting areas like Cashes Ledge created the “spillover effect” where larger populations of fish migrate out of the boundaries of the protected area. This is why commercial fishing vessels often “fish the borders” of protected areas.

After a new stock assessment released one year ago showed that populations of cod, haddock and other groundfish were at all time lows, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under pressure from some of the largest trawlers in the New England fleet started to hint that allowing bottom trawling in previously protected habitat areas – places like Cashes Ledge – might help to increase falling harvest amounts. At a time of the lowest recorded groundfish populations in history, how does it make sense to increase trawling in the best, remaining habitat areas?

This is why we must urge NOAA to keep our habitat protections in place.

Cashes Ledge is important not only to fish and ocean wildlife but also to scientists hoping to learn about the health and function of New England’s oceans. Many scientists believe that Cashes Ledge represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem and have used Cashes Ledge as an underwater laboratory to which they have compared more degraded habitat in the Gulf of Maine.

The basic fact is that opening scarce protected habitat in the Gulf of Maine to bottom trawling at a time of historically low groundfish populations is among the worst ideas for recovering fish populations and the industry which depend upon them. But fisheries politics in New England remain. On Dec. 20th the NEFMC may take action through a backdoor exemption process to allow bottom trawling in a large portion of Cashes Ledge and other areas. NOAA needs to keep current protections in place. CLF is committed to securing permanent protection to ensure the long-term health of this important and vulnerable ecosystem. Click here to urge NOAA to protect New England ocean habitat and help ensure a healthy future for New England’s ocean.

Note: this piece also appears in “Scoop,” Conservation Law Foundation’s blog. 

The Sounds of Stellwagen Bank

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. Here Leila Hatch, the Sanctuary’s Marine Ecologist, talks about her research on underwater sound in Stellwagen Bank. – Ed.

More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle told us that he was listening underwater. Leonardo Da Vinci followed up during the 1400s with the knowledge that ships could be heard underwater from far away. In the 1900s, some of the earliest applications of that knowledge were dedicated to navigation purposes in Boston Harbor. We have been able to record underwater sounds for decades. And yet, even today, we cannot identify all of the sounds recorded in Massachusetts Bay, despite knowing that some of them are biological in origin.

As a marine ecologist at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary I specialize in the underwater acoustic habitat of this federally designated protected area at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. I work with a team of collaborators from NOAA, universities and companies. We monitor the sound field of the sanctuary in order to better understand contributions made to it by a variety of marine animals, natural processes, and by humans.

Sound, and particularly low frequency or “low keys on the piano” sound, is transmitted extremely efficiently underwater. For this reason, animals rely on their hearing underwater as a primary means for interacting with their environment and with each other. Light degrades quickly underwater, but not sound. Some sounds can travel without losing significant energy for tens of thousands of kilometers, and, under some conditions, from pole to pole. During the course of two World Wars and beyond, humans invested large amounts of time and money to develop systems that attempted to match the abilities of marine mammals. Some products closely resemble the animals’ natural capabilities, such as long distance ship to ship communication and detection of objects of interest over large distances.

Like many other species, we want to be able to navigate the ocean or locate areas of high prey abundance. In addition to these purposeful uses of sounds, many of the sounds we make in the ocean are incidental by-products. The construction of offshore platforms and the laying of pipelines produce loud sounds. We also move more than 98% of all retail products by ship. And we are moving more and more of those products every day. Ship propellers create bubbles that produce sounds when they cavitate or burst. The low frequency sounds from large container ships and tankers travel far and wide and add to an increasing hum in the world’s oceans. This growing background noise is highest in the same frequencies used for communication by many marine species, including some of our most endangered baleen whales.

There are some places in the world that are particularly important to both baleen whales and human commerce. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is one of those places. Several baleen whale populations, all of which are vocally active, use these waters to feed and nurse their young every year. But the sanctuary is also bisected by the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme—the in and outbound lanes of commercial shipping to the Port of Boston. In addition, this ocean-going traffic is supplemented by active tug-tow and barge transits, fishing and whale-watching trips, recreational boating excursions, research cruises and more. It’s a busy place.

Since 2006, sanctuary researchers have been working with our partners at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program, and Marine Acoustics, Inc. to develop methods to characterize the contributions of vessels to the sanctuary’s sound field and further determine how these noises are influencing the “acoustic habitats” of baleen whales. From this work we can begin to understand how shipping noise impacts whales’ ability to communicate with each other. In particular, we can estimate the loss of communication opportunities for calling whales as shipping traffic and noise increases over time.

Many questions still remain, including how these lost opportunities to communicate affect the longevity of these species. Baleen whales evolved to exploit a very particular niche. These largest of animals eat some of the smallest of prey, so their ability to survive is based on finding and gorging on huge amounts of that small stuff. As patches of high quality food become less predictable or move due to climate change, whales’ communication systems become all the more imperative. If those systems are compromised, we can assume consequences. But much more science is needed from places like Stellwagen Bank sanctuary to fill in these answers.

Photo above: Whales and ships share space in Stellwagen Bank
National Marine Sanctuary.  SBNMS file photo by WCNE.  Photo
taken under NOAA permit #981-1707.

Happy Birthday to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary!

Above – An endangered North Atlantic right whale, among the most beloved residents of Stellwagen Bank, moves along the surface of the water. 

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the designation of the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary – New England’s first and thus far only National Marine Sanctuary and one of only 13 National Marine Sanctuaries nationwide. Named in honor of a long time Massachusetts member of Congress and in recognition of its outstanding ecological importance to New England’s ocean, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary lies just 25 miles off the coast of Boston and encompasses an area approximately 842 square miles in size. Stellwagen Bank itself was named after Henry S. Stellwagen, a Lieutenant in the US Navy who first surveyed and mapped the area and its surround waters in 1854.

Geologists believe that Stellwagen Bank was originally dry land, wandered by wooly mammoths and mastodons, prior to being sculpted and forced underwater 14,000 years ago by the last Ice Age glaciers. Today’s Stellwagen Bank is incredibly diverse – home to more than 575 species, including sponges, corals, starfish, lobster, sea scallops, and squid. There are also many groundfish species, such as Atlantic cod, yellowtail flounder, and Atlantic wolffish. Schools of bluefin tuna and elegant blue sharks cruise the middle depths in search of prey, while 30-foot basking sharks and prehistoric ocean sunfish ride the surface currents. Although increasingly rare, loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles still live here, protected by the Endangered Species Act.

But Stellwagen Bank is perhaps best known for its 19 species of marine mammals – including seals, harbor porpoises, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and pilot, minke, finback, and humpback whales, the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (pictured above), and the 100-foot blue whale – the world’s largest animal.


A map of Stellwagen Bank, including the original shipping lanes (here called “Existing TSS”) and the current shipping lanes (“Proposed TSS”), which were shifted after intensive whale surveys informed a better route.


Stellwagen’s close proximity to land and its tremendous resources have drawn intensive human activity and uses that pose significant challenges to the long-term health of this special place.  When Stellwagen Bank NMS was designated in 1992, a prohibition on oil and gas drilling and sand and graveling mining within the Sanctuary was imposed, but the designation established little in the way of new protections for its living marine resources.

Intensive commercial and recreational fishing takes place throughout the sanctuary for species such as cod, haddock, flounder, tuna, herring, and lobster. And although it is a National Marine Sanctuary, bottom trawling occurs throughout much of the area threatening seafloor habitats. Hundreds of large cargo ships cut through the middle of the Sanctuary throughout the year traveling along the shipping lanes into Boston, presenting a threat to surface feeding North Atlantic right whales that are prone to ship strikes. The Sanctuary is working to minimize this harm, and has done extensive work to understand where the whales are most likely to be in the Sanctuary, and has cooperated in altering the shipping lanes to be more protective.

Currently the Sanctuary is working to develop a much needed ecological research area that would allow managers to study the impacts of human activities on Stellwagen’s ecosystem and devise better protections for this special place.

This month, New England Ocean Odyssey is excited to celebrate Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary with spectacular photographs and stories of the work that the Sanctuary is doing to protect its precious resources.

Happy Birthday Stellwagen!

Cashes Ledge –Taking A Closer Look

Above – Brian Skerry and Luis Lamare get ready to photograph Cashes Ledge on their recent dive. Photograph by Christian Conroy. 

What’s so special about Cashes Ledge? In this second of a planned series of dives on this New England biodiversity hotspot, Brian Skerry was joined by marine ecologist, Jon Witman, an expert on Cashes Ledge.  Jon has been studying Cashes Ledge for 35 years, and has been watching how the diversity and abundance of sea life has been changing there, and how it has responded to its current limited-protection status. We talked to him and found out more about why Cashes Ledge is so important to the Gulf of Maine, and what we can do to keep it thriving.


Why have you spent so much time on Cashes Ledge?


Cashes Ledge is a fascinating and wild offshore place that helps us understand how marine ecosystems tick. It is also a unique storehouse of Atlantic marine biodiversity. Cashes Ledge provides an opportunity to understand why biodiversity matters in an ecological sense. Unfortunately, we are losing marine biodiversity in the world’s oceans faster than we can study it.

Currently, I’m trying to figure out how the whole benthic ecosystem out on Cashes Ledge – from the fish, to the kelp forests and the diverse invertebrates communities have changed over the past decades. I’m particularly interested in how resilient the system is to human disturbance and to climate-related changes in the oceanography.

When we studied Cashes Ledge intensively in the 1980’s, it was like a time machine providing a fleeting glimpse of what New England marine coastal communities might have been like hundreds of years ago, when lots of large predatory fish – especially cod,  were commonplace close to shore. We videotaped over 100 cod an hour going by an area of bottom about the size of a large picnic table on Cashes Ledge, compared to no cod seen at the same depth at coastal sites in the Gulf of Maine.

I actually saw a whale cod as long as a diver and schools of Atlantic bluefin tuna while diving on Cashes Ledge then. There have been substantial reductions of predatory fish since then, which is something I’m studying, but Cashes Ledge is still a vitally rich ecosystem compared to coastal ones that have been more heavily impacted by humans.



Red cod and cunner, two of the many species that make Cashes Ledge their home




What other kinds of interesting animals have you seen on Cashes Ledge?


There are layers of marine life on Cashes Ledge, including minke, right, humpback and pilot whales, blue sharks, basking sharks, atlantic white sided dolphins, big schools of bluefin tuna chasing herring, whale cod, red cod, pollock, wolffish, torpedo rays, squid, strange feather stars called crinoids, and unusual sponges and sea squirts typical of sub arctic areas of Scandinavia.


Can you talk about the internal waves and why they are important?


The top of the ridge on Cashes Ledge is an incredibly dynamic place – layers of plankton in warmer overlying waters are driven right down to the bottom as much as 20 times a day by these phenomena known as internal waves. This is a big deal because the downwelling plankton layers are pulses of concentrated food that sustain bottom dwelling organisms and, in effect, fuel the food web.

We stumbled across this phenomenon in the course of our scuba dives to the top of the ridge at 30 m. One dive team would go down and report that the water on the bottom was cold and beautifully clear but the next team an hour later found pea soup visibility in greenish warm water. This, of course, turned out to be the plankton layer pushed down onto the bottom like a yo-yo by internal waves.

The temperature increase was so large that we could feel the warm water through our drysuits. At that time, the prevailing view of the subtidal zone was that it was a stable place with nearly constant environmental conditions, compared to the rocky intertidal zone. But out on Cashes we were documenting as much as 5 degree centigrade temperature increases in 10 minutes right on the rocky sea floor at 30 m depth.

Internal waves are like a sine wave travelling along the boundary between the warm surface waters and the colder layer below. They can be huge – spanning 50 m vertically in some parts of the world and 30 m high on Cashes.  I’ve seen these downwelling green water waves approaching the ridge on Cashes Ledge while scuba diving and sitting off the ridge in the Johnson Sea Link submersible – it’s one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen underwater.



A strong current moves through the Cashes Ledge kelp forest. Cunner swim in the background. 




What makes Cashes Ledge so unique?


There are at least three things make Cashes Ledge so unique. First of all, it is the largest continuous kelp forest in offshore waters on the entire east coast of the US. The kelp grow unusually deep there, beyond  30 m depth. The forest and the ledge itself provide many valuable goods and services to keep the offshore Gulf of Maine ecosystem healthy, vibrant, and productive. For example, it’s a nursery habitat for commercially valuable groundfish. It’s also an energy rich food source for marine life living in habitats both on the ledge and far away from it – in the form of detritus as the kelp breaks down.

Secondly, the Cashes Ledge ecosystem contains a wide range of different bottom types – it isn’t just all rocky ledge. Just like on a mountain slope in the Green or White Mountains in New England, there are cobble and boulder fields on the lower sides of rocky slopes on Cashes Ledge. Deeper down, the sea floor is covered in sand and gravel that grades into soft bottom areas of silt and mud in the basins. So what you have in the Cashes Ledge underwater landscape is a representative collection of most of the major types of bottom habitats found in the Gulf of Maine, but in an incredibly compact area, as ecosystems go.

Each of those different habitat types has its own community of species that do especially well in that particular habitat. For example, there are pink northern shrimp, clams, and tube worms living in the muddy basins at the edge of a boulder field, then communities of soccer ball-sized yellow sponges, bright red sea anemones, and little upright calcified candelabras called bryozoans that look like miniature coral reefs, attached to the boulder tops. Different habitats enhance biodiversity overall. If you sum up all the different species living in each of these different types of habitats from kelp forests to the muddy basins, you have some of the highest biodiversity levels in the Gulf of Maine right on Cashes Ledge.

Finally, as an abrupt topographic high in relatively clear, shallow, sunlit waters, Cashes Ledge is an especially productive offshore ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine. I mentioned the role of the kelp detritus exporting food to adjacent ecosystems, but the dynamic oceanography of the ledge itself also contributes to the productivity of the bottom community in the way that internal waves push concentrated layers of plankton to the top of the ridge.

I think both mechanisms help make Cashes Ledge such a productive area for many species – including groundfish and marine mammals. We’ve seen minke whales feeding in the slicks of internal waves on Cashes Ledge, presumably due to high concentrations of food there.


What kind of protection does Cashes Ledge need and why?


As special as it is, Cashes Ledge is a very vulnerable marine ecosystem. Right now Cashes Ledge has a small amount of protection from certain types of fishing activity as an Essential Fish Habitat and as a Habitat Area of Special Concern. This is laudable and a real achievement by fisheries managers in New England. However, this protection is only temporary and it could be eliminated at any moment.  It could be opened to fishing practices that further deplete stocks of groundfish, damage biodiverse communities, and decrease the sustainability of the kelp forests.

Because it is such a unique, valuable, and diverse New England marine ecosystem, the rocky ridge, adjacent bottom habitats, and the overlying water column on Cashes Ledge need permanent protection from human impacts. It has been shown many times that marine protected areas help exploited stocks recover and can ensure the sustainability of biodiversity and other goods and services that keep our oceans healthy. We also know that really small protected areas don’t do these jobs very well, so it pays in the long run to preserve larger areas containing different types of habitats.

Globally, we aren’t doing a very good job of protecting the oceans as less than 2% of the worlds oceans are fully protected, despite all the scientific findings showing that marine ecosystems are under ever increasing levels of stress from all sorts of human impacts.

March Madness: Right Whales in Cape Cod Bay?

Welcome back to our wandering whales! North Atlantic right whales are appearing earlier than usual in Cape Cod Bay and if you’re so inclined, you might just be able to see them from the sandy Provincetown shores. Researchers have been surprised to see so much right whale activity in Cape Cod Bay this early in the season. According to Charles “Stormy” Mayo, PhD., senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, right whales “swirl around loosely in the Gulf of Maine” year round, probably following areas of high food concentration, but they usually don’t start showing up off Cape Cod in concentrated numbers until April.

Normally these whales would have headed off to the Bay of Fundy (except for breeding females, who head south to calve) last fall and not yet returned. The distribution of most of the right whales during winter and early spring is not known, but they are not usually in Cape Cod waters until late March or April. It’s unclear why the whales enjoyed the Cape early this year, having shown up up in December, but it might be due to increased abundance of small marine mollusks called pteropods, which are also being seen in unusually high numbers for this time of year.

The whales do seem to be eating the pteropods, but Dr. Mayo is concerned that they are not exhibiting their usual feeding behaviors. Normally right whales eat constantly. The whales in Cape Cod Bay are eating much more sporadically, potentially at times of day when the pteropods are congregating near the surface. The researchers at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies plan to monitor the whales more closely to try and figure out what’s going on. There were worries last year that the whales were thinner than usual, and were exhibiting some troubling skin conditions, possibly indicating a lowered level of fitness.

Even more troubling, according to the New England Aquarium, there have been fewer mother/calf pairs than usual at their calving grounds in the southeastern U.S., with the number of calves being “markedly lower than it has been in 12 years.” There have also been unexpectedly low numbers of right whales in the Bay of Fundy over the past couple of years. This is worrying news and may affect the long-term recovery of the population as a whole. Every animal matters when the entire population numbers less than 500 individuals.

Researchers are working year round to try and understand more about right whales. It’s hard to study an animal that moves so freely in such a large area, and doesn’t sit still while you take blood samples and put a tag on it. But understanding why the whales go where they do, when they do, and what they do when they get there, is our best hope at protecting them and allowing their numbers to climb back up. And, while there are theories about why the whales are enjoying their spring and summer homes early, there are no conclusive answers yet. “This story is wonderfully intricate and opaque,” says Dr. Mayo. So, for now, the right whale mysteries endure. Stay tuned for more.