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.

The distinctive V-shaped blow of a North Atlantic right whale.
The distinctive V-shaped blow of a North Atlantic right whale.

Life on the Line: North Atlantic Right Whales Need Cashes Ledge

Categories: Cashes Ledge | Guest Posters

One of the favorite feeding grounds for an endangered whale is, well, an endangered ledge.

A Fertile Forest

Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range located 80 miles east of Cape Ann in the Gulf of Maine, teems with wildlife. As with many seamounts, the Ledge’s steep ridges and deep basins, as well as its kelp forests, create an underwater landscape ideal for marine animals to hide, hunt, and spawn.

Because of this abundant ecology, Cashes Ledge is looked upon with increasing desire by commercial fishing interests who want to be able to bring in bottom trawlers to get at the diverse populations of finfish who feed and breed there: fish like cod, haddock, hake, and halibut.

But humans aren’t the only ones who want to fish at Cashes Ledge: the richness of the indigenous ecosystem attracts ocean predators like migrating bluefin tuna, sharks, and yes, whales—all of whom depend on ecosystem of the Ledge for food.

With its abundant upwellings of plankton, Cashes Ledge is an important feeding stop for endangered humpback whales during their seasonal migration in the spring and early summer, and for even more critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, who feed at the Ledge during the summer and fall. The Ledge also attracts smaller, swifter minke whales, who dive in the slicks of calm water between the internal waves, as well as harbor porpoises.

Internal Waves

Right whales use their long black baleen plates, as long as a person is tall, to strain tiny zooplankton and krill out of the water. And there is plenty of plankton to be had at Cashes Ledge! The steep topography and stratified water column around Ammen Rock, the highest peak in the Cashes range, generates an oceanographic phenomenon known as internal waves, which bring plankton-rich waters into a highly dynamic circulation. The force of the internal waves pushes the warm water from the upper levels of the water column against the peaks and slopes of the ledge, driving it down to mix with colder depths, delivering a rich supply of plankton to the bottom. The warm water rises back to the upper photic zone where it is pushed along the ledge and forced downward again. This process, which happens as many as 20 times a day, results in the regular circulation of nutrient-rich water within the water column, and an area of high productivity and energy.

A Wayfaring Whale

For all their size and might, there are fewer than 500 North Atlantic right whales alive on Earth today. Right whales are sometimes referred to as “urban whales,” as their migratory pathways carry them along coastlines busy with human commercial activity. Because they sift their food slowly at the water’s surface, they are vulnerable to injury or death from ship strike and entanglement in fishing nets.

Calving female right whales migrate south along the Atlantic coast of North America to bear their young in warmer southern waters, but in general, rights love to move about the Gulf of Maine in a regular pattern, looking for where the food supply is best. “Cashes Ledge is one of the stopping-off places for North Atlantic right whales and humpbacks, both endangered,” says Stormy Mayo, Senior Scientist and director of right whale habitat studies at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. “Cashes Ledge is notoriously rich and doubtless plays in important role in the rich processes of the Gulf of Maine.”

Whales have always been inextricably linked to their food: find one, and you find the other. Like all other animals, they go where the food is. In Moby-Dick, the crew of the Pequod locates right whales through the presence of “brit” — yellow swarms of copepods on the water.

An Interdependent Symphony

With fewer than 500 individuals left on the planet, every North Atlantic right whale is essential to the survival of the species. Protecting whales means preserving the ecosystems in which they can be nourished and healthy to survive the hazards of migration along highly-trafficked waterways.

One important way to protect animals is to keep the habitat that supports them intact and thriving. Which is why CLF is asking fisheries managers to permanently protect this special place. You can help by signing their petition.

Defending Cashes Ledge from trawling will benefit not only the gigantic right whales, but also a host of interdependent species, including cod, bluefin tuna, and other iconic “New Englanders.” CLF seeks to make the current industrial fishing restrictions on Cashes Ledge permanent, to ensure that this unique and vital habitat is fully restored and thriving to support generations of whales to come.

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.

An undated image of members of the L Street Brownies - one of the oldest "polar bear" clubs in the US. Photo credit
An undated image of members of the L Street Brownies - one of the oldest "polar bear" clubs in the US. Photo credit
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Why Not Go for a Swim? It’s Polar Bear Plunge Season!

Categories: Guest Posters

Winter in New England is not for the faint of heart. Ice, snow, frigid cold temperatures and a biting wind  require residents of the region to steel themselves against sometimes ferocious weather. Shoveling sidewalks and driveways and trudging into the office through the wind tunnels created by the city skyscrapers can be a miserable experience.

For some us, though, the winter snow and freezing temperatures magically transforms our landscape — unlocking a winter wonderland of outdoor recreation. We can’t wait to head for the mountains to ski or slap on a pair of skates to glide, or more often, bump along  the frozen lakes and ponds. And there is nothing more exciting than flying down the backyard hills on sleds and saucers with your kids holding on for dear life.

But the holidays also bring out the most peculiar of New England winter traditions – the Polar Bear Plunge. In the coming week, tens of thousands of New Englanders will take to beaches across the region en masse on Christmas and New Years Day for an invigorating dip in the ocean. Why? Well, according to Bernaar MacFadden, the founder of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which claims to be the oldest “winter bathing” organization in the United States, swimming in the ocean in the wintertime is “a boon to one’s stamina, virility and immunity.”

I suppose a plunge into 45 degrees Fahrenheit water (and that’s what the sea surface temperature currently is registering at the Jeffrey’s Ledge weather buoy in the Gulf of Maine), might have a way of making you feel alive, but the true health benefits of shocking your system are up for debate. Some doctors advise caution before taking a winter swim, as the rush of adrenaline caused by the coldwater plunge can cause hyperventilation and irregular heart rhythms.

But that doesn’t stop the South Boston’s L Street Brownies who have been jumping into the ocean off Carson Beach every New Year’s Day since 1904, after one member reportedly posed the simple question, “Why don’t we go for a swim?” Whatever the risk, communities up and down the New England coast will flock to the seaside, run and jump wildly in and out of the ocean and once again celebrate sea no matter what the season. Why not go for a swim? Happy holidays to all!

Around 300,000 pounds of oyster shells from Boston restaurants are thrown away. Two researchers at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design have a better idea. Photo credit: Jules Morgan via Flickr
Around 300,000 pounds of oyster shells from Boston restaurants are thrown away. Two researchers at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design have a better idea. Photo credit: Jules Morgan via Flickr
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Oyster Gardens for a Healthy Boston Harbor

Categories: Guest Posters

Jenny Corlett & Kelly Murphy are researchers at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design exploring the productive potential of the oyster waste stream in Boston.

Do you like oysters? If so, you’re not alone. 4.1 million pounds of oysters were harvested in Massachusetts alone last year. Oysters have always been part of New England’s foodscape, and oyster reefs were a crucial element of the underwater ecosystem that filtered nutrients from our estuaries and maintained our harbors rich natural resource areas.

Oysters not only clean our water, but also act as shoreline buffers that dissipate wave energy. What’s more, oyster reefs support critical fisheries by providing habitat for other marine life. Oyster reefs, however, are now one of the most severely impacted marine habitats on Earth: over 85% have been lost globally.

We hear a lot about oysters these days – from their ability to reinforce coastlines against increasingly powerful storms, to filter pollutants out of our water (the average adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day), and about the foodie culture surrounding their consumption. There is, however, an important gap in our oyster conversation: what about the waste associated with their consumption?

What happens to oyster shells once they’ve been discarded?

Most people have never thought about what’s left over eating oysters. But did you know that:

  • Over 40 restaurants in Boston serve oysters.
  • Each restaurant generates around 20 pounds of oyster shells per day.
  • Together, this totals over 300,000 pounds of oyster shells per year in Boston alone.
  • Only 4 restaurants currently recycle their shells, meaning that of the vast majority of shells are currently landfilled.


Why? Because Boston doesn’t have anywhere better to put them. But within this broken cycle lies an opportunity for Boston to address two key problems: discarded shells and oyster reef decline. While there are numerous productive uses for discarded oyster shell, the best use by far is as a surface for juvenile oysters to attach to and grow on. The link between the two problems presents an exciting opportunity to propose a better system.

Imagine if all those discarded shells were used to help build new oyster reefs and a re-establish a healthy harbor ecosystem! By establishing a city-wide oyster gardening program we could close the gap in the oyster waste stream.

What is oyster gardening? The idea is simple: raise native oysters in cages attached to docks or existing infrastructure. Once the oysters reach 3 inches, they can be dropped into approved waters to construct and replenish oyster reefs.

Oyster gardening could simultaneously restore native oyster reefs, improve local water quality, and reconnect the people of Boston with their waterfront. There are a number of successful precedents for oyster gardening programs around the region. Oyster gardens are thriving in places like New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Delaware, and New Hampshire, to name a few.

The waters of the Boston Harbor are mostly closed to shell fishing due to the risk of oysters being harvested illegally in polluted waters. However, nursery areas for shellfish seeding projects are permitted if they are transplanted to approved waters. Over the last three years, the Massachusetts Oyster Project has proven that oysters can survive in Boston Harbor. In just a few years, oyster gardeners could use discarded restaurant shells to grow thousands of oysters in the Boston Harbor and re-stock endangered reefs in the region.

What can you do to help? Get involved in the oyster discussion directly: the next time you order oysters at a restaurant, ask whether they recycle their shells. Just by asking that simple question, you can put the thought into the minds of the chef, wait staff, and restaurant owners. Use your power as a consumer to help frame the discussion and generate support for oyster shell recycling and gardening.

If you’re interested in learning more about other efforts to re-establish oysters in the Boston Harbor, take a look at the Massachusetts Oyster Project  and Green Harbors Project at UMass Boston.

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New England Fisheries Managers: Get Your Facts Straight about Habitat

Thousands of acres of New England’s protected ocean wildlife habitat in such places as Cashes Ledge, Stellwagen Bank, Jeffrey’s Ledge and Georges Bank is again at risk as the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) heads into next week’s meeting.

The NEFMC is scheduled to identify its preferences for which ocean habitat areas will be protected from the impacts of bottom trawling and other harmful fishing gear. This work is part of the NEFMC’s ongoing development of the Omnibus Habitat Amendment (OHA). While a final OHA decision is not expected until June, the selection of preferred alternatives will set the stage for final scientific analysis and public involvement to decide the fate of the best remaining habitat in all of New England’s ocean.

Some of the ocean habitat areas have been protected for twenty years and served in the recovery of Georges Bank haddock stocks and the now famous scallop fishery that has made the City of New Bedford the top fishing revenue port in the U.S. for the past 13 years. Two important places at risk are the magical Cashes Ledge, with its dense, kelp-forested mountains and healthy surrounding ecosystem, and the Western Gulf of Maine protected area, a refuge for highly productive female cod that is a particular favorite of the recreational fishery.

With New England’s groundfish populations at historic lows and the prognosis for recovery not getting any better wouldn’t you think that any decision affecting these places—even preliminary ones—would be made with a full review of the best and most complete scientific research and data? And yet it appears the NEFMC has plans to do precisely the opposite.

Over the lengthy ten year OHA development process, the NEFMC’s technical team has attempted to compile the most critical information needed to select among about forty different alternatives for habitat protection and research areas into a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The DEIS is a legally required, multi-volume document that will include detailed characterizations and maps of the habitat found in New England’s ocean waters. More than just a paper exercise, the DEIS holds descriptions of the specific habitats that fish use at each life stage and measures the impacts that each type of fishing gear has on the ocean environment. The DEIS also holds an estimate of the economic effect of fishing a proposed habitat area versus the value of protecting it.

This important document will guide the Council’s initial decisions and inform the public about the different alternatives for protecting habitat. In order to ensure that the Council’s choices are based on the facts, it is essential that the analysis be completed before the Council selects its preferred habitat protection alternatives.

Unfortunately, and in spite of the best efforts of the technical staff, the current DEIS is lacking analysis of the environmental impacts of 14 separate habitat alternatives and an economic impacts analysis of 20 habitat and research alternatives. How can the NEFMC ensure that its decisions are appropriate and defensible when almost half of the alternatives are lacking fundamental environmental and economic impact information? How too can the public meaningfully comment on these alternatives when they are presented with only some of the facts?

Environmental impact studies are designed to help make good decisions before the use of the American public’s natural resources, not to justify decisions after they are made. The solution here is simple. The NEFMC meets again in January and this process of selecting preferred alternatives can be dealt with then. The fate of New England’s best ocean habitat deserves a thorough approach and should avoid the risk of premature, ill-informed decisions.