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.

Monkfish Look Like They Could Bite Your Foot Off

This fish looks like it was designed by Stephen King, with its angular gaping mouth, needle-like teeth, and beady eyes. Imagine your reaction if you were enjoying a refreshing dip in the ocean then you looked down and saw that face staring up at you. I pride myself on surfing with the sharks in the bracing New England ocean, but seeing that crazy face by my feet might just leave me unhinged for a minute. These fish range throughout the North Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, so I know they’re around.

Really, though, your odds of encountering a monkfish are very low and if you did, they probably wouldn’t attack you. They usually hang out on the ocean floor, where they lie in wait, lure in prey with a filament-like “esca” that sprouts from between their eyes, and snatch up whatever unfortunate little fish happens to show interest.

As effective as this strategy seems to be, this bottom-dweller does get up near the surface every now and then – to eat birds. Researchers have recently discovered little puffins in the bellies of monkfish that were caught between 275 and 495 feet down, off the coast of Chatham, MA. Monkfish fish get around! And, I will confess, I didn’t even know we had puffins in New England.

I would really love to see some Crittercam  footage of a monkfish swimming up from the dark, cold depths and rushing a cute little unsuspecting puffin. Pow! Like a shark attack, but smaller and uglier. I’m going to be thinking about this the next time my feet are dangling off my surfboard (although researchers think the puffins were diving down 10 or 20 feet when the monkfish nabbed them). Still – as if the shark anxiety wasn’t bad enough.

Here are some other interesting monkfish facts (these and more can be found in this fact sheet from World Wildlife Fund).

  • Monkfish are also called goosefish, bellyfish, allmouth, and lawyer (that last one seems a little harsh).
  • These fish have been found almost 3,000 feet down.
  • They can eat things larger than they are, and are not very picky. Cod, lobster, and birds are all fair game.
  • Monkfish was not considered marketable in the U.S., until a government funded marketing campaign convinced people they were missing out on something that Europeans had been onto for a while.

Julia Child and a large monkfish. © copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]
Julia Child and a large monkfish. Copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]
 While monkfish have yet to show any interest in eating us, we do seem to enjoy eating them. In New England alone, commercial landings have averaged 35 million pounds a year since 1990. Hopefully this important and unique Gulf of Maine dweller will be able to withstand the  fishing pressure that is now upon them. Given the state of collapse of our cod fishery, healthier bottom dwelling fish stocks are being increasingly targeted to help sustain the fleet. This sort of action might backfire if populations of monkfish and other groundfish begin to plummet as the cod have, leaving fishermen with less and less. Worse, there are pressures on groundfish other than fishing, like warming seas and ocean acidification, which make it important that we set some habitat aside for our ocean ecosystems to adapt and build resiliency to our changing environment.

As odd looking and voracious as monkfish are, they are an important part of our New England ocean ecosystem. I hope that our fisheries managers and researches keep tabs on monkfish populations so we don’t imperil this true ocean oddity. Especially since I haven’t seen that Crittercam footage yet.

Sheepshead Fish are a True Ocean Oddity

April is National Humor Month, so here’s some evidence that nature can tell a good joke. Meet the sheepshead fish. I can tell you all about where it lives, how big it gets, all the usual statistics. But wouldn’t you rather know about those teeth?

Sheepshead fish eat all kinds of things – from soft-bodied marine worms to clams and barnacles – so they need teeth that can accommodate this dietary range. Teeth like ours, as it turns out (although I’m not sure we could crunch up a clam shell). They also have a bonus feature we lack –  extra rows behind the front teeth.

Crazy teeth aside, they are a pretty attractive looking fish, with vertical black and silver stripes that have earned them the nickname “convict fish.”

Photo credit: Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Photo credit: Virginia Institute of Marine Science

These odd little fish are actually quite common – ranging from Cape Cod to Florida. In spite of the impressive looking chompers, they only get to be about 30 inches long, and 15 pounds. I hear they are tasty and popular with recreational fishermen, but I’m not sure I could get past those teeth.

 

The New Signs of Spring

Spring has sprung, New England style. All the signs are there – the crocuses came up then got covered by sloppy, wet snow, and there’s a bunch of mud underneath it all. What New Englander doesn’t love this time of year? We get to think about shedding our winter wrappings and revealing our tender flesh to the warmer weather.

This happens in the ocean, too. Maine lobsters typically molt (shed the old shell and grow a new one) in the spring, as the water gets warmer. Lobstermen know this, and structure their fishing time around it. Richard Nelson, a lobsterman in Friendship, Maine, says he tries to catch the hard-shell lobsters in early spring before the molting starts, and then starts catching the new shedders right around when the summer tourists show up. The shedders are easier to eat, with their softer shells, and are sweeter tasting. But the shedders are also more fragile, and can’t be shipped very well, so they need to be eaten locally or sent to a processor.

“Lobstermen usually look forward to the shedders as newfound abundance,” said Richard. Lobsters that were previously too small to keep are bigger after they’ve shed, and are more likely to be of legal size. Normally, the appearance of the shedders is good news, but last year the lobsters in Maine were molting a month earlier than usual, which threw a monkey wrench into the whole fishing season. The tourists weren’t there yet to eat the shedders, and the processors were busy with Canadian lobsters, so they couldn’t take the Maine product.

And there are signs that it’s happening again this year, according to Bob Bayer, Executive Director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. Warmer than usual ocean water could be driving the lobsters from their deeper winter homes towards their shallower molting grounds too early for the summer tourists and processors to consume.

This is not the only change we’re seeing. According to Bob, there is a lobster population boom underway from north of Cape Cod well up into Canada. They are increasing in number from year to year, to the point that they are might be overcrowding the ecosystem, which might make them more vulnerable to disease and is possibly leading to cannibalism.

Why are there so many lobsters? Bob thinks there might be few factors at play. First, he thinks it’s possible that water pollution south of Cape Cod might be inhibiting lobster recruitment, while waters to the north are cleaner. Temperature is probably a factor as well, for a couple of reasons. First, lobsters grow more quickly in warmer water. Newly hatched lobsters spend their larval stages near the surface of the water, where they are more exposed to predators, and have to develop adequately before they can settle on the relative safety of the ocean floor. When they grow faster, they reach safety faster. The second reason temperature could be helping lobster populations to increase is that warmer waters can increase the amount of food available to lobsters, which fuels their faster growth –  they only grow quickly if there is enough to eat.

If you add it all up – warm, clean water with lots to eat, you get population growth. What usually keeps growth from becoming a boom is predators – in this case, fish like cod and haddock. Cod and haddock, you’ve probably heard, are not having a population boom. So with fewer things around to eat them, except for hungry tourists – and there’s a short season for those – the lobster continue to boom.

Spring is a time of change, of re-growth and renewal. It is also turning into a time of more bad news for New England lobstermen, who depend on a healthy lobster population with a predictable seasonal molt to make a living. Last year, even with the abundance of lobsters in the sea, fishermen struggled with low market prices due to the glut of product. The entire ecosystem in our New England waters is shifting, and it’s anybody’s guess how things will end up, but it seems clear that making a living from the sea is becoming more unpredictable.

Getting Educated – Sea Rovers Style

I’ll be honest with you – I tend to stay on top of the water when I’m in the ocean. Or, I try, anyway. As a surfer the goal is to spend as little time underwater as possible. Especially in the winter. But I’m starting to think I’m missing out on something by avoiding the chilly depths of our Gulf of Maine.

The Boston Sea Rovers, one of the oldest underwater clubs in the nation, hosted its 59th annual show this past weekend, and I was lucky enough to be there with some fellow CLFers. We went to talk about the importance of preserving valuable habitat, like Cashes Ledge, for protecting our fragile ocean ecosystems and helping our dwindling groundfish stocks recover.

We hoped that by showing people Brian Skerry’s beautiful photographs of the gorgeous kelp forest and amazing animals of Cashes Ledge, the divers would be inspired to help us protect it. They were – we got hundreds of signatures on our petition to ask our fisheries managers to protect essential habitat in the Gulf of Maine. And, while we may have gone there to talk, we ended up doing a lot of listening as well. Here are just a few things I learned after spending two days talking with divers:

  • The Gulf of Maine is an excellent place to dive. There are so many wonderful animals to see here.
  • But visibility often stinks. This is partly due to the very productive nature of our waters. As phytoplankton bloom and the food chain gets going, it gets a little harder to see. Or, poor visibility can be due to human activities in the water (see next bullet).
  • The ocean floor looks pretty bad after a bottom trawler comes through. I heard this dozens of times this weekend. “It looks like a freshly plowed field,” said one diver, and you can see the sediment plume from miles away.
  • The next time I want to talk to divers about the amazing beauty of Cashes Ledge, I’d better bring a map so they know how to get there and see for themselves.
  • The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Discovery Channel have partnered to develop a robot that can follow a white shark. Seriously. I saw the footage. More on this later in the month (yes, I am totally geeking out on this).

 

I also learned that, in spite of difficulties equalizing my ears underwater, there may be ways I can still get down below, if I take things very slowly. I’m pretty stoked to find out if that’s true. My 10 year old son, who was with me this weekend, wants to learn also. Even more motivating!

I’m not sure I’ll be as hardy as diver Zachary Whalen, who took this awesome picture under the ice, but maybe I can at least go down below on a warmer day and watch the seals that I usually only see when they pop their heads up next to me while I surf. But if there are waves – I’m bringing my board.

Our Sea Rovers photo contest winner loves a good dive!

Congratulations to Josh Cummings, for submitting the photo Brian Skerry chose as the winner of this month’s contest – this exquisite image of a moon snail navigating the sandy bottom of Folly Cove in Rockport, MA. We asked Josh to tell us more about his passion for diving in New England. Read on to hear about Josh’s New England Ocean Odyssey.

 

My first experiences underwater date back to the early 1980’s while I was on a family vacation. Being only eight years old, I was way too young to dive, but all it took was one snorkeling trip and I was hooked. What I saw was a whole new world; colorful tropical fish in crystal clear warm water swimming amongst vibrant canyon like coral reefs. My little brother and I explored for hours, watching animals such as parrot fish munching on coral, angelfish chasing each other around and moray eels curiously staring us down.

As soon as we got home from that trip, my parents took us down to the local dive shop where I got my first mask and snorkel set; this was the beginning of my love for diving.  After a wait that seemed eternal, my little brother and I signed up for a scuba diving course when he was twelve and I was thirteen:  just old enough. 

We grew up in New Hampshire, close to the Vermont border, where there were no tropical fish or coral reefs to be found, but we were still amazed by what we could find beneath the surface. In those ponds and lakes we were free, able to move around three-dimensionally through the water and swim amongst the trout, bass, and pumpkinseed; still holding out hope that one of Captain Kidd’s ships ended up in a New Hampshire pond.

I continued snorkeling and diving in the nearby ponds and lakes until college, when diving really became an obsession. I took a job at the local dive shop, Underwater Sports of NH, learning everything I could about the sport, and went diving as much as I could.  I dreamt of diving in far-off exotic lands, but being a broke college student kept me in New England. There were still many adventures to be had – off beaches, on shipwrecks, under the ice, in caves and even quarries. 

 

Herring and beer bottle

Back then, I began to notice the destructive influence people have had on our marine environment. I saw the destruction caused by draggers, the deaths caused by carelessly discarded or lost fishing gear, centuries-old and modern trash, as well as the devastating effects of invasive species, such as zebra mussels. 

I noticed that when I recounted my stories to non-divers they were surprised by two things: 1) That there is anything to see in New England waters; and 2) That activities, like carelessly conducted fishing and boating or forgetting that plastic cup on the beach, had long-term consequences. 

I did what I thought I could to help the situation. I participated in underwater clean ups and reminded customers to properly clean their equipment and boats when traveling between water bodies. These were little things that helped, but I knew they were only temporary and small solutions – a Band-Aid. The real solution lies in changing people’s attitudes and behaviors. 

I left the dive shop after I graduated and started my career in the environmental field, but I kept on diving. As soon as I could, I bought a high quality underwater camera system so I could finally share with family and friends what I saw in those murky ponds and chilly surf. As I practiced and slowly got better, I saw how many people were amazed by the colors, beauty, and sheer volume of life in our New England waters. 

I soon realized that the best way to convey the natural beauty of the life in our waters, as well as the damage being done, was through photographs. I wanted to show the destruction, while also showing what is there to protect. 

While I have yet to publish any of my photographs commercially, I am proud to have provided many of my photographs to organizations and agencies aimed at protecting our environment such as CLF’s New England Ocean Odyssey, the U.S. EPA and the USACE.  Over the past year I have been able to document some incredible marine life behaviors: Atlantic squid mating and laying their eggs, and herring migrating through a rushing herring run. Small wonders happening right here in our backyards. 

People often ask, “Where is your favorite place to dive?” It’s a hard question to answer. In my 25years underwater, I have been fortunate enough to dive all over the world (Caribbean, Mexico, California, Thailand, and Palau) with each providing an incredibly different and new experience, but I will always love the excitement and adventure that our New England waters offer. This is my personal New England Ocean Odyssey.

Josh

Josh Cummings is an Environmental Scientist for Jacobs Engineering at the New Bedford Harbor Superfund Site. He has a degree in Industrial Chemistry and has been a certified diver since 1987 with certifications through PADI, TDI and IANTD. 

Embracing Great White Sharks in New England

I’ve always been fascinated by the shark species that inhabit our oceans. As a young girl, I saw my first shark on a whale watch trip out of Newburyport, a basking shark slowly cruising by. As an adult, I’ve had incredible underwater experiences with sharks. I’ve seen great hammerheads and nurse sharks in Nicaragua, whale sharks in Mexico, and great whites in South Africa.

In South Africa, my husband and I were the first to jump in the cage when a great white shark was spotted near the boat. I ducked my head under water and there she was, swimming gracefully by, cautiously checking us out. It was awe-inspiring and absolutely love at first sight (for me, I can’t speak for the shark)!

Around the same time, great white sharks off Cape Cod were making headlines. 2009 marked the first time white sharks had been successfully tagged and tracked in Western North Atlantic waters. I was thrilled to know this amazing species was spending time close to our shores.

Last summer, I had a conversation with Dr. Greg Skomal from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) about his work with white sharks in our area. I was surprised to learn that the DMF does not directly fund white shark research, so Dr. Skomal and biologist John Chisholm, rely on outside help for shark projects. This sparked the idea to form a nonprofit that would support local shark research and education, and with that Atlantic White Shark Conservancy was established.

Over the last six months, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking to shark researchers and enthusiasts around the world.  I’ve learned a lot about the pressures facing numerous shark species globally (finning, overfishing, bycatch), as many populations have seen devastating declines.

Locally, I’ve begun spreading the word about our shark conservation work. What better place to gain support than in New England, where people are passionate about the marine environment. If they love whales, dolphins, and turtles, they must love sharks, right? Not necessarily. I’ve been told by people who care deeply about other marine species off the coast of Cape Cod, that they are not interested in shark conservation. Why the lack of concern for sharks? Fear. Come on New Englanders! We are of hearty stock and brave winters that would bring most people to tears. With regard to sharks, a quick Google search will give you stats on animals in the U.S. that are more likely to kill you than sharks (cows, dogs, horses).

I believe it’s time to face our fears, use our heads, and open our hearts to the beauty of the great white sharks that travel along our coastline. They certainly have more to fear from us than we do from them. Plus, white sharks are fascinating!

Great white sharks are one of a handful of sharks that are endothermic. These ‘warm-bodied’ sharks can maintain internal body temperatures higher than the outside water temperatures. They are part of a small group of sharks (Lamnids) whose eyes are proportionally larger than other shark species.  White sharks are known to spy hop, which involves peering above the surface of the water to take a look around. The eyes of a white shark are not black as coal, as the movie JAWS would have you believe, but instead the iris is denim blue! As an apex predator, white sharks sit at the top of the food chain and help maintain balance that is critical for a healthy ecosystem.

In New England, we are privileged to have such incredible marine wildlife so close to home, including the great white shark. There is very little known about these sharks. We have the opportunity to raise awareness and learn more about this magnificent species, in hopes of ensuring its future.

It is important to realize that the ocean ecosystem is all connected—from the tiniest zooplankton to the largest apex predator. If you love whales, dolphins, and turtles…I encourage you to embrace great white sharks!

Cynthia Wigren
President & Co-founder
Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Leatherback Turtles Really Get Around

Did you know that one of the largest living reptiles on the planet can be found in New England’s ocean? Leatherback turtles, like the one shown above, can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and grow to 11 feet long. They are true ocean cruisers – you can tell by their giant flippers that they are built to cover great distances. They are at home from the tropics to Newfoundland and have been observed traveling almost 13 thousand miles in under two years. One of the reasons they wander is in search of their favorite food – sea jellies, and we have a lot of those in New England in the late summer and early fall.

As a vivid reminder that these sea-faring turtles enjoy our Gulf of Maine waters, last September an enormous leatherback was found, stranded, near the tip of Cape Cod. Normally, there is a well-oiled turtle rescue and rehabilitation machine in New EnglandMass Audubon Society volunteers transport the turtles to New England Aquarium facilities for treatment and release back into the wild – but they are used to dealing with much smaller turtles, usually well under 100 pounds. 

But the stranded leatherback turtle on the Cape was much larger – it was ill and underweight yet still weighed in at 655 pounds – and posed some unique challenges to rescuers and rehabilitators.  Using equipment normally reserved for dolphin rescues, volunteers managed to transport the leatherback to the care of the New England Aquarium. But that was just the beginning of the struggles to help the turtle. According to New England Aquarium’s Tony LaCasse, these turtles are open ocean animals that are not hardwired to recognize barriers, so they can crash into walls and hurt themselves. In addition to needing staff on hand to prevent turtle/wall collisions, this leatherback was so weak it needed help surfacing to breathe. Fortunately, the Aquarium was able to provide all the turtle needed to begin its recovery. You can read more about how the Aquarium handled this huge animal with extraordinary effort and care on their rescue blog.

After two staff and labor intensive days of caring for the leatherback, the experts at the Aquarium decided that releasing him back to the wild would give him the best chance of survival. They fitted the turtle with a satellite tag to learn more about his recovery and behavior, then released him on the “Sound side” of the Cape, where he would not be at risk of getting trapped in Cape Cod Bay.

Once released, the leatherback headed straight for the east end of Nantucket, a spot known for having a high concentration of sea jellies. After that, he quickly headed south to the relatively warmer waters of coastal New Jersey, and eventually moved on to Bermuda. The last time Aquarium scientists checked on the turtle, he was still alive and on the move.

It is a heartening story, and a good reminder of the amazing things that lie beneath New England’s waves.