Maritime Heritage at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary sits astride 400-year old shipping routes and fishing grounds for New England’s oldest ports.  Centuries of marine calamites have made the sanctuary’s seafloor an underwater museum.  Archaeological research has only begun to reveal these stories of the past. Beginning in 2000, sanctuary researchers took the first steps to locate and identify the historic shipwrecks in the sanctuary waters. Since then, the sanctuary has partnered with the Northeast Underwater Research Technology and Education Center (NURTEC) at the University of Connecticut to bring advanced remote sensing technologies to the sanctuary for shipwreck exploration.

When I joined the sanctuary research team in 2002, I was immediately impressed with the possibilities the sanctuary offered for archaeological research. Unlike other Federal waters, historic sanctuary shipwrecks are protected by regulations that prohibit their damage or disturbance (unfortunately fishing activities are exempted from these regulations, a significant gap in the sanctuary’s resource protection abilities). The sanctuary’s largely unexplored location and its relatively deep waters meant that artifacts have remained on sites ready to shed light on our ancestor’s maritime activities. Thus, archaeological discovery in the sanctuary is a thrilling process, from the first hints that side scan sonar has revealed a new shipwreck to the first observation of that site, either by SCUBA diving or remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

Lamartine 1 courtesy of NOAA_SBNMS_and_NURTEC_UConn
Anemones and a sea star living on Lamartine’s granite cargo. Note the manhole bored through the granite slab’s center for access to the underlying sewer basin. Courtesy of NOAA SBNMS and NURTEC UConn

 

Recent research on a sunken schooner, named Lamartine, highlighted the interesting investigative aspects of sanctuary maritime heritage research. Located in 2004 while searching for another shipwreck, archaeologists used NURTEC’s ROV to image the site; a pile of intricately shaped flat granite slabs lying on top of a wooden hull. Library research determined that the granite slabs were sewer catch basin covers used in the construction of street corners. Nearly 7 years of archival research failed to turn up any likely candidates for the shipwreck until a volunteer historian found the Lamartine’s story. A visit to the University of Maine’s library uncovered the granite quarry’s ledger that supplied Lamartine’s cargo confirming the shipwreck’s identity. During a May 1893 storm off Cape Ann, that cargo shifted capsizing the schooner and taking the life of one sailor. Next time you are walking the old streets of Boston or New York, look down and you might see one of these granite basin covers still in place over 100 years after its installation.

In juxtaposition to the dramatic stories of destruction encapsulated in Stellwagen Bank sanctuary shipwrecks, I am wowed by the vibrant marine life that now inhabits these oases of biodiversity.  Shipwreck structure provides ideal homes for many of New England’s undersea inhabitants. To so many, New England’s waters are cold, dark places, seemingly impenetrable from the beach.  The archaeological fieldwork I’ve conducted has revealed dozens of varieties of colorful organisms that would amaze people if they saw them living in their native habitat.

For Valentine’s Day, a Special Love Note from the Sea

Flowers, a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a warm and tender love song, and a glittery card with completely over-the-top sugary sentiment…these are the tokens of affection we most recognize on Valentine’s Day. If you’re one of the lucky ones, that special someone will deliver a heartfelt token that makes your day even more meaningful.

It could be surprising to many people that in our complex and amazing world of ocean animals there are several creatures known for displaying the type of deep affection and commitment of which only romance novelists can dream. Tropical angelfish and at least one type of Australian seahorse are not strangers to life-long love beneath the waves. (And, by the way, is there any name more apropos to a day celebrating intimacy and devotion than that of the deep-sea sponge known as “Venus’s flower basket?”) There is even a small unglamorous freshwater fish known as the convict cichlid which pairs off into a crevasse made into a home to raise their children.

Without a doubt, our own Atlantic Wolffish exhibits the special bond of love suitable for Cupid’s attention. Male and female pairs (who reportedly mate for 3 to 6 hours at a time and practice internal fertilization, a rarity in fish) seek out their own special love nest under a craggy rock, or maybe down along the hull of a sunken wreck, just big enough to guard the egg mass laid by the female. The male wolffish, exhibiting no scientifically observed “commitment issues,” stands guard at his cave haven ensuring the protection of the growing larvae and juvenile offspring. The male is so devoted that he stops eating for as long as he is on guard, sometimes as long as four months. Not only is the wolffish pair committed to each other, they are highly loyal to their habitat.

Without a place to call their own, the wolffish love story could have an unhappy ending. With wolffish numbers having declined drastically in the last three decades, the connection between wolffish and their undisturbed habitat is even more important. Wolffish are still caught as bycatch in trawls and, possibly even more damaging to their long-term survival, their rocky habitat gets swept away by trawls and nesting areas can be buried in the sediment stirred up by trawling gear. Recreational anglers often catch wolffish, but it’s proven that the wolffish can be safely returned to the sea with the proper “catch and release” practice. (Wolffish do not have a swim bladder that “blows up” on the surface.) For both recreational and commercial fishermen in federal and state waters in New England it is illegal to possess or land Atlantic wolffish. If enforced properly, this can be a great step forward for wolffish conservation.

Now, it may be said that the Atlantic wolffish has a face that only its mother could truly love. But isn’t that the mystery of love itself – finding one’s counterpoint in the ocean of uncertainty can be anything but predictable.

Announcing our January Photo Contest Winner!

Congratulations to Matthew Lawrence, the photographer of our January winning photo! The photo shows a rare Atlantic wolffish taking shelter under a sunken trawler in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. We love the way it highlights this charismatic (if a bit homely) fish.

If you have pictures to share, there’s still time left in our February contest! Even better, we have a very special prize for this month’s winner. The winning photo will be displayed in the New England Ocean Odyssey booth at the Boston Sea Rovers Show, March 9-10. At the end of the show, the winner will receive an enlarged print of their photo.

Entering is easy! Explore New England’s oceans, take some photographs and then share them with our online community on Flickr™. All you need to do is add your photos to the New England Ocean Odyssey group and tag them “PhotoContestNEOO2012”. Find out more here.

Also check our our New England Ocean Odyssey Facebook page where we’ll be posting the honorable mentions from the January photo contest over the next few days.

We look forward to seeing your photos!

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. 

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.

Robin:

Why have you spent so much time on Cashes Ledge?

Jon:

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

 

 

Robin:

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

Jon:

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.

Robin:

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

Jon:

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. 

 

 

Robin:

What makes Cashes Ledge so unique?

Jon:

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.

Robin:

What kind of protection does Cashes Ledge need and why?

Jon:

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.

Atlantic Wolffish – Cool as Sharks, Hotter than Shark Week

Some people are enraptured by the fearsome predatory nature of sharks. The image of the omnipotent king of the seas, roaming the deep and preying on any hapless creature small or large, holds a permanent niche in the American psyche. Sharks are cool, there is no doubt. Just look at the media celebration known as Shark Week, which happens every summer. Don’t worry, we get shark fever too, and Brian Skerry has some incredible new shark photos, which we’ll be debuting soon.

 

However, let’s not allow the annual shark-mania to block out the real glamour of other denizens of the deep, which reside at Cashes Ledge and in other spots across the Gulf of Maine. My favorite creature is the Atlantic wolffish, also known as the sea wolf. (This animal is so cool they named a whole class of attack submarines after it and the sports teams at a New England college.) If there is an animal that illustrates both the wonderful diversity of New England’s ocean and the need for protecting habitat for ocean wildlife, it is the Atlantic wolffish. If there is a special place in New England’s ocean worthy of providing better and more permanent protection it is Cashes Ledge.

 

We’ve talked about these toothy fish before, but they merit lots of discussion given how important they are to our Gulf of Maine ecosystem and how much they need our protection. Atlantic wolffish population numbers have taken a perilous decline since the early 1980s. The threats from commercial fishing practices – especially bottom trawling gear –has not only decimated wolffish populations but destroyed the type of rocky underwater habitat which they depend upon. For a species that absolutely needs rocky outcrops and small cave-like structures, the impacts to their habitat are particularly harmful.

 

By 2006, Atlantic Wolffish populations across the Gulf of Maine had declined to a point where serious action was needed. Then the Conservation Law Foundation and Dr. Erica Fuller prepared and filed a petition to protect the wolffish under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. The petition received enough attention for this “gruesome fish” that the National Marine Fisheries Service eventually placed a complete restriction on harvest and possession of Atlantic wolffish across the North Atlantic. This falls short of the full protection warranted under the ESA, but since the wolffish can be successfully caught and released, this temporary fishing regulation gives the wolffish population enough limited protection to recover while further studies are done.

 

The rocky slopes of Cashes Ledge provide excellent habitat for the wolffish, and Cashes Ledge is an even more important area since the destructive bottom trawling gear has been banned year-round there since 2002 through fishery management regulations put into place by the New England Fishery Management Council.

Atlantic Wolffish: A Face only a Mother Could Love?

Bulging of eye and jagged of tooth, the Atlantic wolffish won’t win any beauty contests, but this incredible fish has won our hearts, here at Conservation Law Foundation. OK, so we’re fish people, but we think anyone who gets to know this amazing animal will see the beauty and importance in the Atlantic wolffish. The wolffish, like its name implies, is a keystone predator, or an animal that has a critical ecological function. For example, the predatory wolffish helps keep herbivorous sea urchin populations from exploding and decimating kelp forests. This can provide benefits throughout the food chain to iconic New England species such as cod and lobster.

Look at the impressive set of canine teeth on this wolffish. It is easy to imagine the unprecedented shell-crushing power that helps them eat whole oysters, crabs and sea urchins. If you can’t imagine it, then check out these little video clips and see for yourself! The shells they crunch up eventually turn into gravelly habitat for other animals, like sea cucumbers.

The wolffish, which has evolved with natural anti-freeze to keep its blood flowing in the deep, ice-cold water of the Gulf of Maine it calls home, can live up to 20 years and weigh as much as 40 pounds. Unlike most fish which broadcast millions of eggs into the water to be fertilized by the male and then abandoned, the wolffish pair up (did you check out the video clips?) to reproduce, and spawning occurs internally. The male then protects the eggs in a nest for up to four months. So much for only getting motherly love!

The wolffish is subjected to tremendous fishing pressure. It is a common bycatch species discarded in New England’s groundfishery, and the trawls and dredges that manage to catch wolffish destroy much of its rocky habitat in the process. Unfortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently decided not to afford this ecologically vital native fish protection under the Endangered Species Act.  NMFS ultimately imposed a ban on wolffish landings but took no action to protect its seafloor habitat. Protecting essential habitat for the Atlantic wolffish may be one way to help ensure its survival in the Gulf of Maine in important areas like Cashes Ledge and Stellwagen Bank.