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

Mountains and forests of New England’s ocean

New Englanders are familiar with the mountains that mark their landscape: the Green or White Mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire, the Berkshires and Holyoke ranges in Western Massachusetts. But mountain ranges also lie beneath New England’s North Atlantic waters, and are equally diverse havens for wildlife as their terrestrial counterparts.

Cashes Ledge is one of New England’s most spectacular mountains, but it happens to be lying 80 miles southeast of Portland. This submerged mountain, known as a seamount, is composed of widely spaced peaks, pinnacles, and knolls with average depths of about 100 feet and its highest peak, Ammen Rock, rises within 40 feet of the surface.

This topography is one of the contributors to Cashes’ ecological richness; the steep angle of the slopes causes an oceanographic phenomenon called internal waves. As currents bring water against the abrupt topographic “high” of the ridge, the layers of plankton in the warmer overlying waters are driven to the bottom, as frequently as 20 times a day. These down-welling plankton layers are pulses of concentrated food that sustain bottom-dwelling organisms and fuel the entire food web.

Along with the constant circulation of nutrients by internal waves, the variety of terrains at Cashes Ledge—rocky banks and granite outcroppings, peaks, and channels, cobble and boulder fields, sand-and-gravel-covered seafloor, and soft bottom areas of mud and silt in the basins—also contributes to its intense complexity of life.

Having so many different spaces for organisms to inhabit increases species diversity. The hard, rocky substrate on Ammen Rock and other pinnacles along Cashes Ledge is home to a variety of plants and animals that vary by depth along the slopes, creating identifiable shallow, intermediate, and deep water zones.

In the shallow zone, which extends from the top of each pinnacle down to a depth of approximately 130 feet, grow forests of laminarian kelp up to 30 feet tall, shifting to shotgun kelp as the depth increases. At this depth, kelp groves alternate with aggregations of sea anemones, and both encrusting and mobile invertebrates proliferate in the profuse protection of the kelp.

In the intermediate zone, suspension-feeding invertebrates begin to predominate, and continue to the bottom of the rock slope at approximately 200-230 feet. As the slope begins to level off between 230-250 feet, the muddy bottom of the deep zone supports a biogenic habitat structure for tube worms, mud anemones, and northern shrimp.

The teeming diversity of seamount ecosystems makes them tempting to deep-sea fishing trawlers, which would drag weighted nets across the mountainous terrain in order to catch the schools of fish which congregate there to breed, lay their eggs, and grow to maturity among the sheltering crags. The rocky cobble and gravel substrates of Cashes Ledge are critical nurseries for juvenile Atlantic cod; its sandy and algal dominated areas serve as habitat for pollock eggs, larvae, and young, and its deep muddy areas are essential habitat for white hake.

The kelp forest that is a signature of Cashes Ledge is quite susceptible to human-induced harm. If stripped by mobile fishing gear or shredded by repeated impact from lines, hooks, traps, or other human influences, the tall kelp forests that grow on the Cashes Ledge pinnacles would take many years to re-achieve their former stature. The diverse ecosystem that depends upon these kelp forests could be completely altered, if not eliminated, during that period of regrowth.

Bottom trawling to catch a few groundfish is “like clear cutting a forest to catch a squirrel,” says New England Ocean Odyssey partner and renowned marine wildlife photographer Brian Skerry, who has witnessed bottom-trawled environments firsthand on his dives.

It is such a unique, valuable, and interdependent ecosystem, Cashes Ledge requires permanent protection from human impingement. As a large area comprising many different types of habitat, Cashes Ledge has much to contribute toward keeping our oceans healthy.

Help keep Cashes Ledge permanently protected by joining our petition today!

Laura Marjorie Miller writes about travel, ocean conservation, Yoga, magic, myth, fairy tales, photography, and other soulful subjects. She is a regular columnist at elephantjournal, a writer at UMass Amherst, and a travel correspondent for the Boston Globe. Her writing has appeared in Parabola and she has features forthcoming in Yankee Magazine and Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck.

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

New England’s Dive Community Supports Protecting Cashes Ledge!

Categories: Action Alert | Cashes Ledge

Last weekend, we joined the Boston Sea Rovers at their annual show in Danvers, MA, to talk with divers and other ocean enthusiasts about Cashes Ledge, a Gulf of Maine ecological treasure. We always have a great time at Sea Rovers, and this year was no exception. Countless divers stopped by our booth to learn more about Cashes Ledge, which is now at immediate risk of being opened to destructive bottom trawling, and hundreds of people signed on to our petition asking NOAA to protect the full area around the ledge. We also hosted a presentation with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, Boston University scientist Les Kaufman, and CLF Director of Ocean Conservation Priscilla Brooks.

Their discussion of the incredible value of this unique habitat—and what can be done to ensure its permanent protection—drew over 200 people to a packed room, including the legendary ocean advocate Sylvia Earle. Earle expressed disbelief that anyone would consider opening such incredible habitat to trawling, and she even offered to make Cashes Ledge a Hope Spot in her Mission Blue campaign. The enthusiasm from the Sea Rovers crowd blew us away, and we’re thrilled to have the support of the active and conservation-minded dive community as we seek to protect one of the most incredible marine habitats in New England.

That support is needed now more than ever. In recognition of the remarkable value of the habitat on and around Cashes Ledge, the New England Fishery Management Council closed this area to damaging bottom trawling and scallop dredging nearly 15 years ago. This protected status allowed previously trawled habitat areas to recover and has supported the health of juvenile and spawning fish. It has also allowed Cashes Ledge to serve as an underwater laboratory for numerous marine scientists, providing an opportunity to study ecosystem functioning and biodiversity in a rare environment that is isolated from the polluted waters of coastal habitats and less impacted by commercial fishing.

But now, near the end of an eight-year process to develop a comprehensive habitat plan for New England’s fisheries, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to eliminate protection for nearly three quarters of the Cashes Ledge protected area (the cross-hatched areas in the map below).

The NEFMC's current proposal would eliminate protection for nearly three quarters of the current protected area around Cashes Ledge.

Cashes Ledge has been protected from bottom trawling for almost 15 years, but is now at immediate risk of being opened to destructive bottom trawling. Cashes Ledge deserves protection. Please sign our petition asking NOAA to maintain protection for the entire Cashes Ledge area.

 

Sunset over Cashes Ledge

Stop the Empty Oceans Act!

Categories: Action Alert

Take action for New England’s oceans and tell Congress to reject The Empty Oceans Act!

U.S. Representative Doc Hastings, the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, has drafted a bill to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the main Federal law that protects our ocean and coasts from overfishing. This proposed legislation is so bad that it’s been deemed the “Empty Oceans Act.”

The “Empty Oceans Act” threatens to bring us back to the disastrous overfishing policies of the past. If enacted into law it would eliminate important environmental protections and allow an unsustainable rate of fishing—even on the most vulnerable species.

Tell Congress not to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act. New England should be moving forward with modern science-based fisheries management, not going back to years of perpetual overfishing!

Simply put, the Hastings draft ignores the state of New England’s fisheries and the need to move modern fishery management forward. Instead of recognizing the success of the MSA over time and recent improvements to the law to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish populations, the Hastings draft bill drags fisheries management back into the dark ages with a handful of attention grabbing measures which, if enacted, would take modern fisheries management to a permanent state of overfishing.

Hastings’ Empty Oceans Act proposes to:

  • Allow overfishing to continue by delaying the beginning of rebuilding measures for as long as seven years. Once rebuilding measures for one targeted species finally starts they could extend for decades with no meaningful deadline for completion.
  • Allow fishery management councils to outright ignore recommendations from their own science and statistical committees in setting catch limits.
  • Exempt fisheries management from meaningful environmental review by undercutting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its provisions for environmental impact review of federal management as well as the possibility for the involvement of citizens and other stakeholder groups.
  • Allow commercially driven fishery management councils to have control over the recovery of threatened and endangered ocean wildlife such as sea turtles.
  • Undercut other bedrock conservation laws such as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, as well as prohibit taxpayer-funded fisheries data from being used for other purposes, such as New England’s regional ocean planning effort that has been underway for several years.

 

Help CLF halt this disastrous scheme to take healthy fish populations and the environment out of fisheries management!

 

Northern anemones are one of the many kinds of invertebrates found at Cashes Ledge.
Northern anemones are one of the many kinds of invertebrates found at Cashes Ledge.
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It Takes a Village: Life on the Bottom at Cashes Ledge

If you’re reading this post, you are probably a vertebrate. Those of us with spines and bones may find it hard to empathize with invertebrates (animals without spines), with their radically alien ways of being, frequent radial symmetry and general facelessness! But in many ways, invertebrates are the heart of ocean ecosystems, so for those of us interested in the fascinating universe of the sea it is important to understand them. And there are few better places to study invertebrate communities than one unique and now threatened special area in the Gulf of Maine.

Off the New England coast, about 80 miles due east from Cape Ann, lies Cashes Ledge: an undersea mountain range that is one of the most dynamic, and ecologically productive areas in the entire North Atlantic. Although only the most intrepid divers have seen Cashes Ledge with their own eyes, you can imagine the undersea terrain by thinking of mountains that you already know: as a multifaceted terrain of rocky peaks, banks, and channels, with a valley floor of mud, gravel, sand, boulders, and rock. This terrain supports a vibrant bottom-dwelling community of bright orange, red, and yellow sponges, sea stars, brittle and feather stars, sea squirts, sea pens, anemones, tube worms, northern shrimp, horse mussels, and sea mosses, technically known as “bryozoans.”

This colorful community is one of Cashes Ledge’s treasures, and one that is ever more in peril.

Invertebrates of Cashes Ledge. Photo by Jon Witman.

Invertebrates of Cashes Ledge. Photo by Jon Witman.

 

The variety of terrain at Cashes Ledge makes it an ideal living laboratory for studying the structure of the vibrant communities that grow along its slopes and hills. The enhanced water flow created by the topographic “ramp” of the Ledge encourages a high growth rate of invertebrates, both mobile and encrusted to their home rocks—varieties of sponges that are as yet uncatalogued, including a rare species of blue sponge that has only ever been sighted in the rock wall communities of Cashes Ledge.

Unique communities form at each depth, creating a complex and rich diversity of species. Metridum anemones gather at the tops of the ridges, sheltered by waving groves of laminarian kelp. Large urticina anemones and orange sea stars flourish in the mid-depth areas, as well as brachiopods, crinoids, ascidians, and yellow mounding sponges the size of footballs. The soft bottom is home to tube worms, pink northern shrimp, and thickets of mud anemones. Ammen Rock, the highest peak in the Cashes Ledge range, hosts large, sensitive beds of horse mussels: a “foundation species” because they provide habitat and refuge for other species.

Phakelia sponge and brittle stars. Photo by Jon Witman.

Phakelia sponge and brittle stars. Photo by Jon Witman.

The biological richness which makes Cashes Ledge so compelling for scientists to study has also drawn the attention of industrial fishing interests, which are currently lobbying to remove long-standing protections for Cashes Ledge.  Allowing bottom trawling at Cashes Ledge would rapidly deplete the remaining populations of large cod and other groundfish who are the most prolific spawners. The kelp forests, slopes and rocky terrain serve as excellent habitat and the best chance for restoring Gulf of Maine cod populations, which are now at historically low numbers.

Cod and anemones. Photo by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Cod and invertebrates. Photo by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

New bottom trawling would be bad news for bottom-dwelling sea life at Cashes Ledge, because a number of the invertebrate species that grow there are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance. These invertebrates move slowly (if at all), and often have specialized reproductive cycles. If their habitat is harmed and breeding adults removed, species could take many years to recover, even longer for rarer species. Scientific estimates predict that the large, solitary sea anemone Urticina crassicornis would take 268 years to return to the community if it were removed by fishing gear.

Trawling Cashes Ledge could deplete or endanger many species that we do not yet fully know about. Cashes Ledge should be left intact as a resource for scientists, as well as a replenishment zone whose presence will sustain a recovering ocean ecosystem that will be of benefit to fishermen in the future. Trawling at Cashes Ledge is a short-term economic gamble that would cause long-term economic and environmental damage.

Cashes Ledge is a “wild offshore place that helps us understand how marine ecosystems tick,” says marine ecologist Jon Witman, who has been studying it for 35 years. “Cashes Ledge provides an opportunity to understand why biodiversity matters in an ecological sense. Unfortunately,” he continues, “we are losing marine biodiversity in the world’s oceans faster than we can study it.”

As an offshore haven far from the polluted waters of coastal habitats, Cashes Ledge warrants full and permanent protection to ensure that its intricately connected habitats and unique ecosystem can continue to serve as a reservoir of diverse ocean wildlife, a replenishment zone for sustainable fish stocks, and an open ocean laboratory for scientific research. Please add your voice to those calling for the protection of Cashes Ledge.

Laura Marjorie Miller writes about travel, ocean conservation, Yoga, magic, myth, fairy tales, photography, and other soulful subjects. She is a regular columnist at elephantjournal, a writer at UMass Amherst, and a travel correspondent for the Boston Globe. Her writing has appeared in Parabola and she has features forthcoming in Yankee Magazine and Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck.

Matt Goodwin diving on the wreck of an oil tanker off Gloucester which has become an artificial reef.
Matt Goodwin diving on the wreck of an oil tanker off Gloucester which has become an artificial reef.
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Fact: Healthy Oceans are Better for Divers

Categories: Action Alert

Yes, I admit it – I’m not a diver. But I am a surfer, and that makes me a stakeholder in healthy oceans, too. There is a big conservation ethic among surfers, because, in the words of one of the surfiest brands:  “Don’t destroy what you came to enjoy.”

Billions of dollars and millions of jobs are created each year by the use and enjoyment of America’s oceans and coasts.  In fact, in 2010 alone, ocean-related tourism and recreation supported more than 1.9 million jobs, and contributed almost $90 billion to the nation’s GDP. At the same time, our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes ecosystems face significant challenges to their health and their ability to provide the benefits, goods and services that we all want and rely upon.

These problems may come in the form of harmful “red tide” algae blooms which cause beach closures and damage shellfish farms in Massachusetts, expanding “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico caused by nutrient pollution runoff going into the Mississippi River, or the need for better science-based information to repair storm damage to cities and towns and to protect the public in advance of the next monster winter storm.

Being able to solve these ocean and coastal management challenges is difficult for federal and state agencies to do with the tools and resources they currently have, yet as our nation grows more along our coasts and demands more from our oceans these current management challenges are only going to become more difficult to solve.

Thankfully, we have the National Ocean Policy to help coordinate the work of our federal agencies and involve states and all stakeholders — including the public — to work together to help address some of the biggest challenges facing our oceans, and coasts.

But the best initiative the US has ever developed to promote ocean health and the importance of access for all current and future recreational users is under fire right now, and needs your voice of support!

Congress is working to pass the already problematic Water Resources Development Act and one harmful rider to that bill would eliminate the involvement of the US Army Corps of Engineers in any coastal planning, stakeholder engagement or other work that relates to the National Ocean Policy. The WRDA bill has passed the House and Senate and is in conference committee negotiations now.

Since the National Ocean Policy is implemented through current, existing laws and programs – this rider could disallow any involvement by US Army Corps in a range of issues and coastal projects that fall under their regular order of business.

Worse, some of our fellow ocean users have illogically come out in support of this harmful rider. Now is the time for responsible members of the dive community to stand up and ensure ocean health is recognized and supported.

But, check it out, there is one good idea being considered in this conference that needs our support – the establishment of a National Endowment for the Oceans (NEO) to improve ocean health and support ocean jobs and wildlife.

So consider emailing or calling your representatives and telling them “I support the Senate-passed National Endowment for the Oceans in the WRDA bill, which would help improve ocean health and maximize the economic benefits to our nation. I support the full implementation of the National Ocean Policy and oppose the House-passed Flores rider, which would place damaging restrictions on the use of common-sense ocean management tools like ocean planning and ecosystem-based management found in our National Ocean Policy.”

Cut, paste, or dial, and make a difference.