Lined Seahorse- Hippocampus erectus
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Cool Fish, Hot Water: Seahorses Swim North

Categories: Ocean Oddities

New England’s ocean is getting warmer—and the fish are headed north.

In 2012, water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine reached record high temperatures. NOAA reports that sea surface temperatures in some areas were as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit above long-term averages, while deep waters were about 3 degrees  higher than average. Temperatures in the first half of 2013 were less extreme, but remained unusually warm. The high temperatures of the past two years aren’t a new development, either—the Gulf of Maine has experienced a long-term warming trend for well over a century.

While these balmy temperatures may be nice for swimmers and surfers, their effect on marine life might not be as positive. The impacts of climate change on the health of marine species are still uncertain, although scientists are beginning to understand how warmer temperatures cause plankton to bloom earlier, help invasive species like green crabs thrive, may cause fish to grow to smaller sizes, and push commercially important species like cod to cooler, deeper waters.

One effect of warming waters in New England has been very clear, though. As ocean temperatures around Cape Cod and in the Gulf of Maine reach record highs, fishermen have started to notice some unusual species on their lines and in their nets—species more typical of warmer waters in the mid-Atlantic or even the tropical ecosystem of the Caribbean. Over the next several posts in this series, we’ll introduce you to some of these new faces.

Our first species—perhaps the most startling example of a once-subtropical species showing up in the Gulf of Maine—is the common seahorse, Hippocampus erectus (also known as Hippocampus hudsonius). Although their range does extend as far north as Nova Scotia, these familiar fish were once only common from the Chesapeake Bay to the Venezuelan coast, and were almost never found in the Gulf of Maine. Most people probably associate these fish with snorkeling on a reef or the tropical tank at the aquarium. But last summer, at least one Maine lobsterman, David Cousens, pulled up several seahorses in his lobster traps—something he’d never seen before.

The evidence for warm-water fish species moving north isn’t just anecdotal. Several scientific studies over the past five years have shown strong evidence that fish distribution is changing in response to climate change. In 2009, scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service tracked the center points of the populations of 36 fish stocks and found that between 1968 and 2007, nearly all of these species moved north or shifted to deeper water. In 2012, a group of scientists developed an index called the Mean Temperature of Catch, or MTC, which is calculated as the average “preferred temperature” of the species caught in an area. Worldwide, MTC has increased steadily since at least the 1970s, suggesting that global fisheries are catching more species that prefer warmer water.

Most recently, an article published in Science shows that the direction and speed at which the distribution of species changes closely tracks the direction and speed of the effects of climate change. This does not always mean that species move north—off California, for example, stronger winds have pushed cooler waters south, and fish have moved south, too—but it does mean that marine species are redistributing to follow cooler water as temperatures change. In New England, cooler waters are moving north and offshore, and that’s where the fish are headed, too.

Stay tuned over the next several weeks as we introduce you to some of the species that have started calling New England home as our water temperatures rise. These profiles will just skim the surface of the fish moving in to this region—everything from grouper to vivid tropical species like filefish has been spotted in this area in the past few years, and these changes may just be beginning. Whether a beachgoer, a diver, or a fisherman, we will all have to adapt to the changing environment and new species in the Gulf of Maine.

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World Premiere of Ocean Frontiers II – A New England Story for Sustaining the Sea

How do we meet our ever-expanding demands on the ocean and also work together to protect it? The answer is explored in a new film from Green Fire Productions, Ocean Frontiers II: A New England Story for Sustaining the Sea. The second in the award-winning film series, Ocean Frontiers II is an inspiring story of citizens working together for the sake of the sea. Please join us for the premieres of this timely and important film in Providence on October 28th and in Boston on October 29th.

Ocean Frontiers II brings you face to face with those now embarking on the nation’s first regional ocean plan, promoting healthier economies and healthier seas across New England. A spotlight on Rhode Island reveals how the Ocean State turned potential conflict into collaboration, inviting all on a path of ocean stewardship. Watch the film trailer here

The world premiere of Ocean Frontiers II is in Rhode Island on October 28th, at 7pm at the Providence Public Library. The Massachusetts premiere is the following night, October 29th, at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX theater in Boston, also at 7pm. Both events are free and open to the public, but space is limited so please make your reservation:


Providence, October 28th

Boston, October 29th


Following the screening of each film we will have a short panel discussion that explores New England’s leadership to foster sustainable growth of our ocean economy and the protection and restoration of our ocean ecosystems.

You may have seen the original Ocean Frontiers: The Dawn of a New Era in Ocean Stewardship, at one of our previous screeningsOcean Frontiers is a compelling voyage to seaports and watersheds across the country to meet industrial shippers and whale biologists, pig farmers and wetland ecologists, commercial and sport fishermen and reef snorkelers—all of them embarking on a new course of cooperation to sustain the sea and our coastal and ocean economies.

Following on the heels of the award-winning Ocean Frontiers I, Green Fire Productions brings you face to face with those now embarking on the nation’s first multi-state attempt at ocean planning. Navy scientists, wind-energy executives, fishermen, Native American tribal leaders, planners and environmental advocates – all are working as one to promote healthier economies and a healthier ocean across the breadth of New England.

According to Karen Meyer, Executive Director of Green Fire Productions, “One of our goals was to make sure that people know that ocean planning is underway and that all of our voices are really critical at this stage. It’s our role as concerned citizens who are interested in coastal economies and a thriving marine ecosystem to be involved and make our voices heard.”

Please join us at one of these premieres and learn how to make your voice heard in ocean planning. In the meantime, learn more about why ocean planning matters in New England. We hope to see you at the movies!

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Caution! Electrical hazard ahead – the elusive Atlantic torpedo ray

New England waters are home to several species of elasmobranchs – or sharks, rays, and skates. Among the sharks most commonly seen in New England waters are spiny dogfish and blue sharks. Other less frequently encountered sharks are the porbeagle, mako and basking sharks.

And, although there are several types of rays in New England’s ocean, they are often much harder to observe than the sharks. Mostly camouflaged on sandy bottoms, they frequently go unnoticed. Sometimes, only their eyes will peek up above the layer of sand under which they usually hide. Generally inactive during the day, they are more frequently seen at night when they hunt.

Among the species of rays inhabiting New England coastal waters, one in particular has some rather shocking characteristics. The Atlantic torpedo ray (Torpedo nobiliana), sometimes called electric ray, is capable of discharging electrical current.

Like all electric rays, it has a pair of specialized organs that produces an electric pulse, which can be used to stun or kill prey. Each organ is composed of stacks of 500 to over 1,000 striated muscle bands all with nerves connecting on the same side. When the muscles of the organ are contracted, an electrical shock is produced. The ray’s organs store the electrical current it produces, just like a battery.

The Atlantic torpedo ray can grow up to 6 feet in length and weigh up to 200 pounds. Due to its size, this ray packs quite a punch. In fact, it is capable of producing 220 volts of electricity!

Though seldom life-threatening, the electric discharge of an Atlantic torpedo is quite severe and may be enough to render a person unconscious, not a desired state if underwater. In some cases, divers who have been shocked are said to have been disoriented.

Most divers will say that the best way to stay safe in the ocean is to refrain from touching plants or animals and this is obviously a good example of the virtues of the non-invasive observation of marine denizens.

Generally non-aggressive, the torpedo ray has few predators. Its size and stunning potential are good deterrents. It, on the other hand, feeds on bony fish, small sharks and crustaceans.

On a recent dive in Maine, at a site known as Nubble Light, we were fortunate to encounter not one but two Atlantic torpedo rays. They are easily recognizable by their disc like shape and their very small eyes.

The first ray was quite large, measuring roughly five feet in length. It was surprisingly active. We actually first spotted it as it swam past us. It seemed unbothered by our presence. We were able to get quite close without it having the urge to swim away (of course, we were very careful not to get too close). This made for good video opportunities and gave us the chance to get a close look at the animal and study its behavior during several minutes.

The second ray we encountered was smaller in size, measuring about four feet. It behaved quite differently. Completely immobile, it was perfectly content to lie on the sandy bottom. Maybe it was resting? The presence of divers nearby was of no concern to it. In fact, it was us that left it behind, at the very place we had found it.

These 2 rays were observed in less than 25 feet of water. It was late afternoon so daylight was fading and visibility was reduced due changing tides but we can still see the main features of this ray: shape and eyes.

Of our many dives at this site, we had only once before caught a quick glimpse of a Torpedo ray swimming off. This time, though, the torpedo rays were the highlight of our day.

Today’s guest post is by our friend Michel Labrecque. Michel is a published underwater photographer and contributor for various underwater medias. He is also a PADI Master Instructor, IANTD Trimix Instructor, a DAN and EFR Instructor Trainer and an HSA Instructor. He co-owns Plongée XL, a PADI 5 Star IDC Dive Center located in Victoriaville, Canada with Julie Ouimet who signs most of their articles.


Dr. Richard Kirby takes a reading as part of his global Secchi Disk Project.
Dr. Richard Kirby takes a reading as part of his global Secchi Disk Project.
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Citizen Plankton Science! Join the Secchi Disk Project (and be Extremely Awesome)

Categories: Guest Posters

So, you want to be a marine biologist but you have no training? No problem, as long as you’ve been to the eye doctor lately. Don’t have all that expensive equipment? All you’ll need is little more than your smart phone. Forget the endless hours of studying and the late nights analyzing data… Dr. Richard Kirby is giving you an easy and fun chance to contribute, and on a really important project.

Dr. Kirby is a scientist across the pond at Plymouth University’s Marine Institute and he studies plankton. We’ve taken a close look at plankton recently, both the plant and the animal variety. These sea-drifters are responsible for at least half of the oxygen we breathe, and they lie at the base of a food chain that produces hundreds of millions of tons of food for us. Their importance cannot be overstated.

But how do you study a group of organisms that are so small in size and so large in number? Well, it’s not easy, especially when you’re trying to determine the amount of phytoplankton on a global scale. Some have tried, and a widely publicized report from Nature found that phytoplankton numbers have been declining over the past century, an alarming finding given their importance. But the study has been hotly contested, and the only certain fact coming from the debate is that we need more information.

And that’s where you come in. Dr. Kirby figures the best way to get more information is to enlist the help of the roughly 7 billion amateur-scientists that may already be out at sea, whether it be working, sport fishing, or just pleasure cruising. He has developed a free mobile phone app that allows you to easily record a measure of plankton abundance from anywhere in the ocean.


The system is based around a simple little device that marine scientists have been using since 1865: the Secchi disk. Named after its inventor, Father Pietro Angelo Secchi, a Secchi disk is basically just a weighted white disk attached to a tape measure (instructions on how to make one can be found here). You lower the disk into the water and record the depth at which it disappears from sight. That is called the Secchi depth and it gives scientists a measure of how much plankton is in the water. If the water has a lot of plankton, it’ll be tougher to see the disk, and it will disappear from sight at a shallower depth.

After you determine a Secchi depth you enter it into the free Secchi App, which records your location along with the measurements that you made. All of this information is stored on your phone and passed along to Dr. Kirby once you get an internet connection. Voilà! You’re part of a major study to help figure out the changes that our world’s oceans are going through. You can even check out the data coming in from all over the world!

Our technological advances and changing climate have intersected to make this the perfect time for such an ambitious study. Dr. Kirby notes “This app enables seafarers around the world to take part in a science project and if we can just get a small percentage of the global population of sailors involved, we can generate a database that will help us understand how life in the oceans is changing. It would help us learn much more about these important organisms at a crucial time when their habitat is altering due to climate change.”

So next time you’re heading out to sea, make sure to bring your Secchi disk and your phone, and help us to understand what’s happening to our global ocean. While you’re at it, put a picture of you doing your citizen science on our Facebook page so everyone knows how awesome you are!

Casey Diederich is a 5th year PhD candidate in Tuft’s University’s Biology Department, and is conducting his research on slipper-shell snails. We are thrilled to have Casey guest blogging for us about some of the more fascinating plants and animals in our ocean. – Ed.

Longfin squid in the Gulf of Maine. One of many amazing Skerry images featured at Ocean Awareness Week.
Longfin squid in the Gulf of Maine. One of many amazing Skerry images featured at Ocean Awareness Week.
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Mark Your Calendars: Ocean Awareness Week is Coming to NH’s Seacoast!

Here at Conservation Law Foundation, we would like every week to be Ocean Awareness Week. So, when our friends at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, New Hampshire and The Music Hall in Portsmouth told us that they were planning a week of local activities and events dedicated to everything ocean this October, we were all over it. CLF is very proud to sponsor the first annual Ocean Awareness Week, alongside The Music Hall, the Seacoast Science Center, Gundalow Company and Kent Stephens’ Stage Force.

Ocean Awareness Week aims to bring attention to the importance of healthy oceans with a particular focus on the Gulf of Maine and the role of arts and culture in promoting sustainability. CLF has long been a leader in protecting the Gulf of Maine and its coastal treasures like the Great Bay estuary. CLF’s New England Ocean Odyssey campaign, which aims to engage New Englanders in caring for their oceans and coasts through photography, is a perfect fit with Ocean Awareness Week’s focus on art to promote ocean and coastal awareness.

Ocean Awareness Week kicks off at the Seacoast Science Center on Sunday, October 6 with two screenings of the film, Ocean Frontiers at 11 AM and 2PM. Produced by Karen Meyers, Ocean Frontiers shows how the many users of the ocean, from fishermen to shippers to farmers, are solving challenging problems affecting our busy oceans by working together. The film tells fascinating stories of the innovative solutions that these stakeholders have created out of shared concern for the future of one of our most precious of natural resources. Following each screening, Seacoast Science Center President, Wendy Lull, and CLF’s Director of Ocean Conservation, Dr. Priscilla Brooks, will host a question and answer session for attendees.

Meanwhile, Seacoast Science Center visitors can get a close up look at the amazing wildlife that lives in New England’s ocean through the lens of renowned underwater photographer, Brian Skerry. Skerry, a New England native whose arresting photographs have graced the pages (and many covers!) of National Geographic magazine, has partnered with CLF to bring attention to the mysteries of New England’s ocean through the New England Ocean Odyssey. For the first time at the Center, Skerry’s exclusive photographs for CLF will be displayed together, revealing surprising facets of ocean life that cement our bond with these remote creatures and reinforce our will to protect their home.

Skerry’s photos will be displayed alongside the work of several other local photographers who love diving in New England’s ocean and sharing what they see in her murky depths. The works chosen for the exhibit are winners of New England Ocean Odyssey’s monthly photo contest, which Skerry helps to judge. The New England Ocean Odyssey photo exhibit will run through December. Visitors to the Center can pick up free postcards of Skerry’s photographs and other CLF literature.

Later in the week, CLF will take more of Skerry’s photos on the road to several Ocean Awareness Week events. Our traveling team of New England ocean and coastal experts will be on hand to talk about CLF’s work and answer questions at the following events and locations:

  • Wednesday, October 9 from 4:30-6:30 PM, Gundalow Company VIP Boat Cruise

The Dock at Prescott Park, at the end of Water Street, Portsmouth

CLF’s new Great-Bay Piscataqua Waterkeeper, Jeff Barnum, will be a featured speaker on this educational outing aboard the Piscataqua about the Gulf of Maine and our marine ecosystem. The cruise is free for VIP Reception Ticket holders. Space is limited. For reservations call Gundalow Company at 603-433-9505.

  • Saturday, October 12 at The Music Hall Historic Theater

4PM: Nationally recognized storyteller Jay O’Callahan performs the story of Richard Wheeler’s epic kayak journey tracing the path of the now extinct sea bird, The Great Auk.

5PM: Portsmouth Ocean Prize ceremony honoring Richard Wheeler

6:15 PM: VIP reception at The Loft at the Music Hall

Open to VIP seating and reception ticket holders.

Tickets to all Music Hall events may be purchased online at The Music Hall website. Prices vary. View the full itinerary of events and pricing.

Our Ocean Awareness Week team includes, in addition to Dr. Brooks:

Tom Irwin, Director of CLF New Hampshire, Robin Just, Ocean Communications Associate, Leah Fine, Ocean Program Assistant, Jeff Barnum, CLF’s Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper.

We hope you’ll come visit with us as you enjoy Ocean Awareness Week!