Photo credit: Ray Troll and Terry Pyles poster, NOAA Fisheries
Photo credit: Ray Troll and Terry Pyles poster, NOAA Fisheries

Happy National Seafood Month!

Categories: Events/Calendar

October is National Seafood Month—a great time to think about the sustainability of our seafood and how our personal choices can help keep our oceans healthy! According to NOAA Fisheries, the average American eats 14 to 16 pounds of seafood a year; with a U.S. population of 319 million people (U.S. Census), that’s 4,466 to 5,104 million pounds per year!

How can our oceans possibly sustain such a booming seafood market? NOAA Fisheries provides one simple answer: habitat protection. Over the summer, NOAA Fisheries released a video titled, “Healthy Habitat: The Foundation of America’s Seafood and Fisheries,” to address the importance of ocean habitat protection, not only for marine organisms, but for us as well!

When it comes to sustainable fisheries New England, unfortunately, has a pretty poor track record. The region is known for historic overfishing, disappointing fisheries management, and sadly, the recent collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery—the iconic fish of our region.

New England fisheries are far from perfect—very, very far. But, in the spirit of National Seafood Month you can educate yourself about sustainably-sourced fish and make smarter, more informed consumer choices. The New England Aquarium has its own list of “ocean friendly seafood species,” as well as delicious recipes that you can try.

Also, it is important now more than ever to take NOAA’s message to heart and protect precious marine habitat. Cashes Ledge—located in the center of our own Gulf of Maine— is one such habitat that we can help protect.

Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range whose unique environmental conditions produce a biodiversity hotspot for marine life. On Cashes Ledge, nutrient- and oxygen-rich water at the ledge’s peak give rise to the largest kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard and a rich diversity of species ranging from bottom-dwelling sea stars, sea anemones, and purple sponges to highly endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Closed to destructive fishing practices for over a decade, Cashes Ledge and surrounding areas are in danger of being reopened to commercial bottom-trawling—a proposal that would ultimately destroy the habitat and further decimate the remaining cod population. National Seafood Month is a great opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of sustainable fishing practices and its associated benefits associated. Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) is asking NOAA Fisheries to permanently protect Cashes Ledge and maintain it as an ecologically important area and healthy habitat for marine life.

You can help CLF to protect New England ocean habitat by signing our protection for Cashes Ledge petition here.

"One of the most beautiful deep-sea corals, iridogorgia (a type of octocoral), creates large spirals as it grows. This coral was fairly common during our dives on the New England Seamounts. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Our Deepwater Backyard: Exploring Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts."
"One of the most beautiful deep-sea corals, iridogorgia (a type of octocoral), creates large spirals as it grows. This coral was fairly common during our dives on the New England Seamounts. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Our Deepwater Backyard: Exploring Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts."

Dive Deep Down with NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer

Categories: Creature Features

Are you interested in the kind of creatures that lurk in the dark depths of our New England waters? You can now explore the U.S. Atlantic coast deep-sea ecosystem for yourself!

NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer just wrapped up its 52-day expedition during which a team of scientists collected data on Atlantic submarine canyons and the New England Seamount chain, vastly unexplored areas of our ocean. The expedition consisted of three legs: Leg 1 focused on collecting data over unmapped areas of the New England Seamount Chain, and Legs 2 and 3 used the remotely operated Deep Discoverer to collect baseline data throughout the region.

Atlantic submarine canyons are found between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and the Gulf of Maine. They are known for their great marine biodiversity and range of critical habitats that connect the outer continental shelf with the deep sea. The New England Seamount Chain is a collection of extinct underwater volcanoes found about 700 miles east of the Northeast U.S. continental shelf. The geological diversity of the chain also gives rise to hotspots of marine biological activity.

Expedition Manager, Brian Kennedy reminds us that “despite the role that oceans play in supporting our well-being, 95% of the ocean remains unexplored. Increasing baseline knowledge of ocean habitats is critical to the conservation and preservation of these remarkable ecosystems.” The data collected from this, and other NOAA expeditions, is invaluable to our nation’s resource managers.

Beautiful photos and spectacular videos of corals, eels, and more are now available! You can find more information and learn about what expeditions NOAA has planned for 2015 here!

Point Judith Sunset. Photo Credit: Austin Recio.
Point Judith Sunset. Photo Credit: Austin Recio.

“Snap the Shore, See the Future”

Categories: Events/Calendar

Living in the Gulf of Maine area, climate change and sea level rise are bound to affect our lives. According to the EPA, we could see a 2-foot rise in global sea level by 2100. For almost 50 years Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has worked to restore and protect the Gulf of Maine and surrounding waters, New England’s largest public trust resource. Our work includes cleaning up our harbors, protecting ocean wildlife and critical ocean habitats like Cashes Ledge, and working to create a region-wide plan to help coastal communities adapt to rising sea levels caused by climate change.

It can be difficult to imagine the effect climate change will have on our coastlines. That’s why CLF appreciates the work of the King Tides Project, a non-profit organization made up of local interest groups that strives to effectively explain to people just how climate change will impact our coasts and the people living there.

King tides are completely natural phenomena, occurring twice a year when the sun and moon align. And even though they are regular and predictable, king tides have a chance of damaging coastlines if they occur during poor weather conditions. These tides “give us a sneak preview of what higher sea levels could look like.”

The next king tide is tomorrow, October 9th at 12:30pm—this is where you come in. The King Tides Project is hosting a Gulf of Maine King Tides Photo Contest! The organization wants local residents to visually document how the king tide—what may very well be “the new tidal norm” with sea level rise—is affecting Gulf of Maine coastal areas. So, CLF members and supporters, here is your chance to show us how you view the Gulf of Maine and why we should take action to reduce the effects of climate change! For more information, you can go to the Gulf of Maine King Tides website.

A Paramuricea coral in Nygren Canyon, 165 nautical miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Image via NOAA/Okeanos Explorer
A Paramuricea coral in Nygren Canyon, 165 nautical miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Image via NOAA/Okeanos Explorer

New England’s Corals

When most of us think of coral, we picture a scene not unlike that found in Pixar’s Finding Nemo: a vast multicolored reef in the warm shallow waters of the tropics, inhabited by a multitude of equally colorful fish. But did you know that many intricate and colorful species of coral can be found right here in our own New England waters? Growing along the ridges of underwater canyons and seamounts off the Atlantic coast, the New England version of a tropical reef plays host to our own aquatic flora and fauna, more suited to the chilly waters of the northwest Atlantic.

Though they resemble undersea plants, corals are in fact colonies of tiny, soft-bodied invertebrates whose secreted exoskeletons form, over time, the large and intricate structures that we recognize as coral. In the warm waters of the tropics, groups of these exoskeletoned colonies form extensive reefs in the clear, shallow waters close to the shore.

Though snorkelers may appreciate the clear waters of the tropics, the water is so clear in these areas because it contains few nutrients or plankton. Very little mixing of the water column occurs in these uniformly warm waters, so nutrients remain trapped on the bottom of the sea, preventing the multiplication of plankton, and leaving the water empty of food. As a result, tropical corals get their nutrients through a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae, which grows inside the coral and lends it energy from the sun.  Large animals like whales, however, are unable to sustain themselves by hosting algae. Instead, whales like humpbacks and right whales breed in tropical waters but return to New England to feed in the summer. The constantly mixing warm and cold waters of New England bring nutrients to the surface, encouraging plankton growth, and are thus a veritable soup of life. New England corals enjoy this soup just as much as the whales do, and most of them filter feed instead of relying on algae to do the work for them.

A striking purple coral, Clavularia sp., seen in Nygren Canyon. Image via NOAA/Okeanos Explorer

A striking purple coral, Clavularia sp., seen in Nygren Canyon. Image via NOAA/Okeanos Explorer

New England corals live not in the near-shore shallows but along underwater canyons and seamounts. Last summer, NOAA’s Okeanos mission documented some of the wide array of marine life in the Northeast’s canyons, including Oceanographer Canyon, a deep underwater channel that cuts into the southern edge of Georges Bank. You can see images and video from the mission here. The seamounts are part of the New England Seamount Chain and often rise to within 100 feet of the ocean surface, ensuring a rich habitat for undersea creatures due to the high concentration of particulates in the water and the nearness of sunlight.

Unfortunately, cold water corals grow slowly and are very susceptible to the effects of trawling, which is why Fishery Management Councils along the east coast have begun to take action to protect areas like canyons and seamounts with rich deep-sea coral populations.

New England’s corals are surrounded by towering kelp forests, fish and mammals of all kinds, and even sea turtles. So if you’ve ever wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef, but balked at the idea of that plane ticket to Australia, consider exploring the underwater scenery right in our own backyard!

The kelp forest at Cashes Ledge not only provides excellent habitat for marine life; it also serves as a carbon sink.
The kelp forest at Cashes Ledge not only provides excellent habitat for marine life; it also serves as a carbon sink.

Ocean Plants Part 3: Kelp and Climate

Categories: Guest Posters

Many NEOO readers may have come across a description of the relationship between sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp in a biology textbook. A quick recap: sea otters prey on sea urchins, which live in kelp beds and which, in turn, prey on the kelp itself. Sea otter predation, then, protects kelp from predation and allows kelp forests to flourish. Fewer of us are likely to have heard of the Atlantic wolffish, but this snaggle-toothed New England native plays the same role here that the sea otter does in the Pacific: keeping the urchin population down and the kelp population up. Of course, this is good news for kelp, but is it good news for us as well?

The answer is a resounding yes. Kelp provides essential habitat for countless marine species, including commercially important fish. Furthermore, scientific evidence suggests that kelp forests, like their terrestrial equivalents, play an important role in carbon sequestration.

Plants take in and store CO2 as part of the process of photosynthesis. Some of the carbon stored in plants is soon released when the plant decomposes, but some is sequestered in carbon sinks. Forests, swamps, and especially the ocean are all important carbon sinks. Kelp, boasting both a high uptake of atmospheric CO2 and an ocean floor habitat, is a particularly important player in carbon sequestration, and this role is becoming even more important in the face of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and anthropogenic climate change.

New England is home to abundant and diverse kelp forests, notably at Cashes Ledge, where forests of towering laminarian and perforated shotgun kelp grow thickly on the undersea mountain slopes, sheltering abundant fauna including whales, seals, sharks, and commercially important fish such as the Atlantic cod. Detritus from this kelp forest tumbles off the ledge into the neighboring basin, where these nutrients are recycled back into the ecosystem and fuel incredible productivity. Kelp forests like the one at Cashes Ledge may be a critical component of our oceans’ ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change and ocean acidification caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Urchins have taken over this kelp bed off Tasmania. Image via NASA.

Urchins have taken over this kelp bed off Tasmania. Image via NASA.

The loss of an apex predator such as the Atlantic wolffish, and a subsequent increase in herbivores (urchins, in this case), leading to a decrease in carbon sequestering plants such as kelp is a well-known effect called a trophic cascade. We can speed such trophic cascades along, in this case either by reducing Atlantic wolfish populations through bycatch and habitat destruction, or by skipping this step altogether and decimating kelp forests through destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling. Unfortunately, we’ve done just that—Atlantic wolffish are severely depleted, and the kelp forest at Cashes Ledge is threatened by a New England Fishery Management Council proposal that would reopen 75 percent of the area surrounding the kelp forest to commercial fishing (this area has been protected since 2002).

The news that apex predators such as the Atlantic wolfish can help preserve healthy populations of kelp, and that kelp in particular is a highly efficient carbon sequestering plant, tells us two things. First, while the Atlantic wolffish alone may not have much impact on overall climate change mitigation, protecting important predators like the wolffish will build resilience for our ecosystems in more ways than we can count. Second, we New Englanders should support habitat protection and responsible fishing practices that allow our kelp forests to continue flourishing. In doing so, we will promote carbon sequestration and provide habitat for countless fish—including the Atlantic wolffish, that friend of the kelp. After all, in the end, all ecosystems are cyclical.