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.

 

 

Special Species Round-Up: 6 Creatures found in Cashes Ledge

If you are familiar with New England Ocean Odyssey, you know we love Cashes Ledge, a majestic 25-mile undersea mountain range and biological hot spot in the Gulf of Maine.Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

You know that this natural laboratory offers scientists the chance to explore a relatively pristine and unique ecosystem, to discover and observe rare and endangered species, and to hypothesize about what the greater Gulf of Maine looked like before the commercial fishing industry existed.

You know that Ammen Rock, the highest peak in the mountain chain, rises from a depth of 460 feet all the way up into the photic zone (exposure to sunlight), just 40 feet below the ocean’s surface. And you know that Ammen Rock disrupts the dominant Gulf of Maine current, swirling nutrient- and oxygen-rich waters from the seafloor to the top of the water column, providing ideal conditions for a huge array of marine life including sponges, corals, anemones, predatory fish, sharks, whales, and more.

But what specific special species reside at Cashes Ledge, and what migratory visitors stop by throughout the year? Let’s dive a little deeper and find out!

1. (Unclassified) Blue Sponge

This species is so incredibly rare, it hasn’t even been sighted anywhere apart from the rocky walls of Cashes Ledge, let alone taxonomically classified. Needless to say, we have a lot to learn about this species. Cashes is also home to a variety of bright red, orange, and yellow sponges, including mounding sponges as big as footballs! Cod and Invertebrates

Cod swim under a wall of sponges and other invertebrates. Image via NOAA/ONMS

Sponges are primitive creatures that latch on to hard surfaces anywhere from the intertidal zone to the deep ocean floor. They filter feed by absorbing tiny organisms through incurrent (think “inbound”) pores and excreting waste through excurrent (“outbound”) pores. Many sponges can reproduce either sexually or asexually.

 

2. Red Cod

You’ve read about, seen, and probably eaten Atlantic cod…but have you ever heard of red Atlantic cod? While genetic testing has yet to determine if this variation is a distinct species, Graham Sherwood, Research Scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine, hypothesizes that it is not. All cod eat high levels of carotenoids (natural pigments found in organisms such as crabs and worms), so it’s no surprise that some cod are red in color. But why are some red while most are olive-colored?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

Kelp Forest and Red Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

An olive cod (top) and a red cod (bottom) swim through kelp forests at Cashes Ledge. Images via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.
Sherwood’s theory is that the red coloring is an adaptive advantage. Red cod typically permanently reside in shallower kelp forests, while olive-colored cod roam around deeper waters in the North Atlantic. The red coloring may be a U/V protectant or a form of camouflage for shallower waters. We’ll have to stay tuned to find out if red cod are a separate species, or if they are just a colorful variation of olive-colored Atlantic cod.

Check out more Brian Skerry photos of red and olive-colored cod at Cashes Ledge.

 

3. Christmas Anemone

Urticina crassicornis, the Christmas anemone, resides on rock faces at depths up to about 100 feet and may grow to be a foot tall and 8 inches in diameter. It feeds on crabs, urchins, mussels, gastropods, chitons, barnacles, and fish by stinging and stunning prey with venomous cells found in the anemone’s tentacles.

The candy-striped shrimp, Lebbeus grandimanus, is immune to the Christmas anemone’s sting; the two organisms live in a commensal relationship whereby the anemone provides shelter for the shrimp, and the shrimp does not affect the anemone.

Red Anemone A Northern red anemone on a rock wall at Cashes Ledge. CLF/Brett Seymour.

 

 

 

 

4. Porbeagle

Cod and InvertebratesPorbeagle, Lamna nasus. Credit NMFS/E. Hoffmayer, S. Iglésias and R. McAuley.

No, that’s not a white shark – it’s the great white’s lesser known relative, the porbeagle, Lamna nasus. The porbeagle can be easily distinguished from a white shark by its second dorsal fin (that tiny second bump on the shark’s back before its tail). These big guys can grow up to 11 ½ feet long and are highly migratory throughout the Northwest Atlantic. They tend to stay out of shallow waters along the coast, preferring pelagic waters from the surface to depths of 1000 feet. In the Gulf of Maine, they feed on mackerel, herring, other small fish and sharks, and squids.

NOAA listed the porbeagle as a “Species of Concern” for the Northwest Atlantic stock in 2006, the same year that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the subpopulation as endangered. Since the 1960s, overfishing has been a major threat to porbeagles, which are slow-growing with low productivity rates, making it difficult for populations to recover. In the U.S., the species is managed by the Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is currently reviewing two 2010 proposals to list the porbeagle on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.

 

5. North Atlantic Right Whale

The waters off the coast of New England get some magnificent, gigantic visitors. Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales, Eubalaena glacialis, hang out around New England and the Bay of Fundy in the summer and fall to feed on zooplankton and raise their young. They move about the Gulf of Maine in a regular pattern, often stopping at Cashes Ledge, where regular circulation of the water column produces plankton-rich waters. In the winter months, the whales typically migrate to birthing grounds in the coastal waters off the southeastern United States.

The North Atlantic Right Whale was subject to intensive whaling from the 1500s through 1935; populations off the east coast of North America are still struggling to recover, due in large part to boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

North Atlantic Right Whale with Provincetown lighthouse (Long Point) in the backgroundA North Atlantic Right Whale in Cape Cod Bay in front of Provincetown, MA. Image via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.

 

 

6. Bubble Gum Coral

Deep-water coral colonies thrive in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. Paragorgia arborea, nicknamed bubble gum coral for its pink color, is a fan-shaped coral (aka “sea fan”…creative, right?) that typically inhabits exposed locations at depths of 600 to 4,300 feet. It can grow up to six meters tall, making it a real treasure for divers to spot. At Cashes Ledge, Paragorgia inhabits the hard-bottom basalt substrate.

Deep sea corals grow slowly and may live to be thousands of years old, making them extremely susceptible to lasting damage from bottom trawlers. One sweep of a trawl net can destroy centuries of growth – a problem not only for the corals, but also for the marine species that use the corals as a nursery and refuge habitat.

Paragorgia

Paragorgia colonies in the New England Seamount chain. Image via NOAA Ocean Explorer.

These are just six of the marvelous, charismatic species that depend on the nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. If we are to protect them, we must start by protecting Cashes Ledge.

Sharks are here! Just in time to celebrate Shark Week

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is well-timed this year: New England’s first great white shark sighting of 2015 happened last week!

Slightly earlier than projected, the great white made its appearance on June 22 off the coast of Cape Cod.

White Shark Skomal Branded

Shark experts are predicting more sightings and taggings this year than last season. Great white sightings have been increasing for years, which most likely results from a rise in the gray seal population (which has rebounded in the decades after the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was passed).

Aside from great whites, New Englanders have also reported a number of basking shark sightings within the last few weeks. Though much less fear-provoking than a great white (basking sharks are filter feeders and lack the iconic sharp teeth of a great white), these shark sightings have stirred up conversation and excitement along the coast.

Basking Sharks, approximately 18 miles off Chatham, MACoinciding with the 40th anniversary of the movie “Jaws,” this year’s spotlight on sharks is a great opportunity to learn about the many species of sharks in our oceans, and the role they play in keeping ecosystems balanced.

Great white sharks are a threatened species, so more sightings are a good thing – they prey off of mostly dead or injured seals, which encourages a strong seal population.

While they are ominous creatures, most shark attacks are a result of  confusion or mistaken identity and are not actually an”attack” at all; sharks typically bite humans only by accident. Shark attacks are also incredibly rare. While humans kill almost 100 million sharks each year, it’s estimated that sharks kill only 5 or so humans worldwide annually.

Protecting our oceans means protecting the wildlife and precious ecosystems – including the many species of sharks – that call New England’s oceans home. The rise in popularity of Shark Week over the last few years seems to be resulting in an almost celebratory attitude toward sharks – and though the fear of shark attacks doesn’t appear to be dwindling any time soon, we’re excited that sharks are having their moment.

Happy Shark Week!

 

New England Canyons and Seamounts are the Atlantic’s Deep Sea Treasures

New England is a region full of remarkable marine landscapes. An area like Cashes Ledge speaks to the immense beauty and diversity found in our local ocean, but it is not the only one.

Approximately 150 miles off the coast of southern New England, where the continental shelf drops off into the ocean abyss, liesa chain of undersea canyons and nearby seamounts that are home to an incredible richness of marine life. The canyons plunge thousands of feet deep, some deeper than the Grand Canyon, and the seamounts rise as high as 7,000 feet above the seafloor, higher than any mountain east of the Rockies.

Much like Cashes Ledge, these habitats give rise to an elaborate underwater world of marine species. Communities of brilliant cold-water corals line the walls of the canyons and seamounts supporting a  diverse deep-sea ecosystem and providing refuge for abundant fish and invertebrate species. Nearly 1,000 species have been identified in the New England Canyon and Seamount region, and researchers are discovering more with every expedition.

The nutrient rich cold water brings an abundance of plankton, squid, and forage fish, such as mackerel, This in turn attracts schools of tuna, sharks, seabirds, and marine mammals, such as endangered sperm whales and North Atlantic right whales – both rare, iconic species of the region.

The depth and ruggedness of the region have naturally protected the New England Canyons and Seamounts from human disturbance thus far, but this may not always be the case. This region is particularly vulnerable to fishing and offshore development. One sweep of a bottom trawl would have devastating effects for the fragile deep-sea community, and future any development in the region, such as drilling or mining, would pose great risk to marine mammals and fish.

Scientists have also suggested that deep-sea coral communities are among the most vulnerable to ocean warming and ocean acidification. Maintaining the health of the canyons and seamounts will be imperative in the fight against climate change.

The New England Canyons and Seamounts region is another special place that deserves protection.

 

Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

Great White Sharks Making Waves

For a long while it seemed like our brutally cold, record-setting snowy winter would never end. But now, the warmer days are becoming more frequent, the leaves are (slowly) returning to the trees, and rather than trekking through feet of snow, we can lay in the warmth of the sun.

The summer season is nearly upon us, and that means great white shark season is fast approaching! Just south of our New England waters, news of a great white shark made waves over the weekend.

Mary Lee, a 16-foot long, 3,500 pound female, surfaced off the New Jersey shore before heading back out to deeper waters, and as of this morning, she’s northbound, surfacing near Long Island!

The Ocearch Global Shark Tracker tracks the movements of great white sharks, and you can follow along using the web or mobile tool. When the dorsal fin of a tagged shark breaks the surface, a signal is transmitted and a “ping” is registered that gives the approximate location of the shark.

Ocearch researchers tagged Mary Lee off of Cape Cod back in September 2012. Since then, she has travelled 19,658.738 miles!

According to the Global Shark Tracker, Genie, another female great white shark, pinged in the New England canyons area at the end of April.

Make sure to follow the fun and stay up to date on shark movements all summer long!

 

Image via NOAA Sanctuaries.

Protect the Porbeagle

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) is considering two petitions to list porbeagle sharks as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. NMFS originally rejected the petitions in 2010, but federal regulators are now reviewing the status of the species pursuant to a recent court order.

Reaching up to 11.5 feet in length, porbeagle sharks (Lamna nasus), also known as blue dogs, can be recognized by their stout dark gray bodies, pointed snouts, and large black eyes. They are found globally swimming over continental shelves and deep ocean basins, but preferring cold and temperate waters, this species is most often found in the North Atlantic Ocean. Not much is known about their reproductive cycles, but the Gulf of Maine is thought to be a favorite mating ground.

Commercial fisheries for porbeagle sharks exist in other areas of the world, but in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank region, porbeagles are often victims of bycatch. It’s for this reason that Northwest Atlantic populations of porbeagle sharks are declining and why their status is under review.

Here’s just one more, rather poignant, incentive to protect essential marine habitat in New England like Cashes Ledge.

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

How to Tag a Great White Shark

With the help of over 50 researchers from more than 20 institutions, the non-profit Ocearch has tagged and tracked sharks around the world, from South Africa to the Galapagos. In September 2012, this research mission came to New England for the first time when the great white shark dubbed “Genie” was tagged off of Chatham in Cape Cod, MA.

What does it take to wrangle one of the fiercest apex predators in the ocean? After hours of preparation, sport fishermen and scientists from Ocearch set out each day on the repurposed crab vessel M/V Ocearch, a boat about the same size as the sharks they’re searching for, and use chum to attract sharks while they scan the ocean surface.

Once sighted, a shark is baited and hooked, guided towards the Ocearch vessel, and hauled out of the water using a custom lift capable of supporting thousands of pounds in weight (great whites can weigh over 5,000 lbs).  The Ocearch captain jumps into the water and onto the platform with the shark and uses the shark’s tail helps to guide it onto the lift.

When the team pulled Genie on board and the water around her receded, her anxiety visibly increased, so Ocearch Captain Brett McBride threw a wet towel over her eyes. As she began to calm down, the Captain was able to remove the hook from her mouth and insert two hoses to cascade water over her gills. At this point the rest of the crew jumped onto the platform, sporting jeans and long-sleeve shirts, and began to take a series of measurements and tag Genie. Named for “the shark lady” Eugenie Clark, Genie measured at 14 feet, 8 inches and 2,292 pounds.

Using a power drill, Genie’s dorsal fin was fitted with a satellite tag, an accelerometer and an acoustic tag. Other researches collected blood and tissue samples to study back in the lab. Genie was out of the water for approximately 15 minutes before she was guided back into the ocean and the tracking began. 10 hours later, the accelerometer detached from Genie, floated to the surface and transmitted data regarding her swimming pattern and movements. Whenever Genie’s dorsal fin breaks the surface, her tracker transmits a signal to a satellite overhead, which produces an estimated geographical location for the shark. Where is Genie now? Enjoying herself on Virginia Beach, VA.

As of this summer, the “shark wranglers” working for Ocearch have successfully tagged well over 50 great white sharks around the globe. By tracking sharks like Genie, researchers are hoping to build an understanding of their migratory patterns, breeding grounds, birthing sites, feeding areas and general white shark behavior. This information will help protect some very important animals—great whites are apex predators, which means a healthy population is crucial to maintaining the balance of ocean food webs and ecosystems.

Image via Mass EEA

The Sharks of Cashes Ledge

When most of us imagine a shark, we picture something along the lines of Jaws’ famous antihero: a massive, blunt-nosed, white bellied monster: a great white shark. But great whites constitute only a tiny percentage of the world’s sharks, and New England has some incredible habitat for many of the other species that swim our seas. For example, out on Cashes Ledge—an underwater mountain range 80 miles off the New England coast that harbors some of the most incredible habitat in the Gulf of Maine—you might come across multiple fascinating species, among them the blue shark and the porbeagle shark.

The blue shark, a slender, blue-hued fish measuring up to 12.5 feet in length, often swims in schools organized by sex and size. This habit, along with the sharks’ tendency to use their schools as “packs” to heard prey into a concentrated group for easy feeding, has earned blue sharks the nickname “wolves of the sea”.

Blue sharks migrate up and down the Americas’ Atlantic coast, and may travel all the way from New England to South America in a migration year. They prefer cooler waters, however, and so are more likely to be spotted by divers in the colder north, because in these temperate waters blue sharks are more willing to approach shore. Blue sharks prefer water between 45 and 61 degrees Fahrenheit, and as New Englanders will ruefully agree, that makes them right at home here.

Squid constitutes a large part of the blue shark diet, but the sharks are not choosy, and hunt octopus, cuttlefish, bony fish, lobster, and even sea birds. Some blue sharks have been observed snatching cod from trawl nets. The sharks themselves are sometimes hunted by orca whales—coincidentally also nicknamed “wolves of the sea”—but their primary predators are humans. An estimated 20 million blue sharks are caught each year, both as bycatch in commercial fisheries and as a directly targeted species by commercial fishermen and sport fishermen. The blue shark is currently listed as “Near Threatened”  by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

A porbeagle shark. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
A porbeagle shark. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Porbeagle sharks boast both a memorable name and impressive lifespan: around 65 years, which is more than triple the estimated lifespan of the blue shark. Shorter and bulkier than blue sharks, porbeagles have dark grey bodies, white underbellies, and rounded heads. They grow to around 11.5 feet and weigh about 300 pounds at maturity. Porbeagles are also migratory sharks adapted to cool waters, but they stay farther north and closer inshore than blue sharks do, feeding off the Canadian coast and migrating south to the Sargasso Sea to breed. They rarely swim more than 200 meters deep, yet, sadly, divers are unlikely to come across them—the IUCN Red List classifies porbeagles as endangered in the northwest Atlantic.

Due to its unique and productive landscape, a decade of protection from underwater trawling, and its location along the sharks’ migratory route, Cashes Ledge provides a perfect refuge for these incredible but threatened sharks. Divers admiring the kelp forests, anemone beds and schools of rare and threatened fish might be lucky enough to spot a pack of sleek blue wolves of the sea or a dark gray porbeagle as the sharks pause in their coastal migration at this sanctuary in the sea.