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Dive In with Brian Skerry as He Prepares to Photograph Cashes Ledge

Over the past two years, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has taken us on an incredible tour of some of our region’s marine life—from blue sharks to red cod to North Atlantic right whales.

We now have some exciting news to share with you all—over the next two weeks, Brian Skerry will return to the Gulf of Maine and Cashes Ledge to photograph more of New England’s incredible marine life and habitat!

Brian has photographed marine life around the world—from China to Spain and everywhere in between—so we’re excited to have him return to his native New England waters (he’s originally from Uxbridge, MA). Brian has called New England Ocean Odyssey “an opportunity to bring my fellow New Englanders along with me and show them that our ocean is every bit as thrilling and surprising and beautiful as seemingly more exotic locales.”

From May 25 to June 6, Brian will dive from the R/V Tioga out of Portsmouth, NH. The ultimate goal: to return to Cashes Ledge, an ecological marvel 100 miles off the Maine coast. This underwater mountain range rises to within 40 feet of the surface. Being so close to the surface exposes this mountaintop to sunlight, and its steep topography creates internal waves that mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water. This mixing supports incredible productivity, including the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. The diverse habitat of Cashes Ledge draws in an incredible array of marine wildlife—rare anemones and sponges, fish like cod, wolffish, and bluefin tuna, blue and porbeagle sharks, and endangered North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales.

The exact dive locations will depend on a lot of factors, like weather and visibility, but Brian and the team are hoping to visit sites from the inshore Isles of Shoals to more far-flung locations, including Cashes Ledge. Along the way, Brian will be joined by a team of ocean scientists, advocates, photographers, and videographers, including Dr. Jon Witman, a marine ecologist who led the first ecological study of overfishing in the Gulf of Maine and has spent decades studying invertebrate and fish communities on Cashes Ledge and other marine habitats in the region. We’ll be introducing more members of our dive team to you over the next two weeks.

Brian and the entire team are looking forward to exploring some of the incredible habitat the Gulf of Maine has to offer, from rocky shoals to anemone beds to lush kelp forests. Over the next two weeks, be sure to follow Conservation Law Foundation and New England Ocean Odyssey on Facebook and on Twitter at #CLFDive2014 as we share snapshots and updates from this one-of-a-kind expedition. With Brian as our guide, we look forward to revealing more of the amazing wonders beneath New England’s waves.

An Atlantic sturgeon. Photo credit: NOAA/Robert Michelson
An Atlantic sturgeon. Photo credit: NOAA/Robert Michelson
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New England’s Endangered Living Fossils

Categories: Creature Features

Tomorrow, the US will observe Endangered Species Day, an opportunity to “recognize
the national conservation effort to protect our nation’s endangered species and their habitats.”

If you’re a regular New England Ocean Odyssey reader, you’re probably already familiar with some of New England’s endangered marine species—Atlantic salmon, leatherback sea turtles, and North Atlantic right whales, for example. You also know how important protecting important habitat areas can be to the conservation and recovery of these incredible animals.

In honor of Endangered Species Day, we thought we’d introduce you to one of New England’s weirder endangered species: sturgeon.

There are actually two species of sturgeon found in New England—shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon. Once, sturgeon were so common in east coast streams and coastal waters that settlers considered them a navigational hazard, since they tended to leap out of the water and directly into passing boats.

These once-plentiful sturgeon populations have declined sharply since the 1800s due to overfishing for meat and caviar. Shortnose sturgeon have long been considered endangered throughout their entire range, which stretches from New Brunswick to Florida. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service placed a coast-wide moratorium on catching Atlantic sturgeon in 1998. In 2012, most populations of Atlantic sturgeon were also placed on the endangered species list, with the exception of the Gulf of Maine population, which is listed as threatened.

Sturgeon are basically living fossils and are one of the oldest existing families of bony fish—they’ve been around since the Cretaceous period, 120 million years ago. They don’t have scales, but are covered with bony plates called scutes. Atlantic sturgeon can reach an insane 60 years old and fifteen feet long. Within the past month, a six-foot sturgeon washed up in the Delaware River and a seven-foot sturgeon washed up in the Connecticut River—and both of these fish were just juveniles.

Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous, meaning they split their time between freshwater and saltwater. Generally, sturgeon remain in brackish streams until they’re about six years old. They then reach maturity in the ocean before returning upstream to spawn. Female sturgeon don’t spawn until they’re about 15 years old and only spawn once every 2-6 years, meaning populations are slow to grow and recover. Sturgeon larvae also need cool, clean, flowing water to survive, making upstream habitat restoration a crucial part of sturgeon recovery.

Interested in learning more about these endangered fish? NOAA is holding an Endangered Species Day Sturgeon Tweet Chat with NOAA Fisheries Scientist Jason Kahn today from 2-3 p.m. ET. Tweet @NOAAFisheries with the hashtag #ESDaychat to join in.

A diver swims past abandoned netting on the wreck of the Chester Polling.
A diver swims past abandoned netting on the wreck of the Chester Polling.
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Ghost Gear Busters!

Categories: Ocean Oddities

We’re all familiar with some of the impacts that active fishing gear can have on marine wildlife and habitat. But did you know that this gear can keep on fishing, all on its own, long after it’s lost or abandoned?

Almost anyone who’s gone diving in New England has seen lost lobster traps, lines, and pieces of nets on the ocean floor. This abandoned or lost fishing gear is just one of many types of marine debris that litter our coasts and oceans. It’s often called “ghost gear,” and it’s responsible for “ghost fishing.”

The term “ghost fishing” first gained global attention at the 16th Session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries in April 1985. In 2009, the FAO published a full study of what it calls “Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear.”  The report notes how difficult it is to estimate how much ghost gear is out there. But with some anecdotal reports saying New England lobster fishermen, for example, may lose around 20 percent of their pots each year, it’s likely to be a lot.

Very little of this gear is intentionally discarded by fishermen. Vandalism, gear conflicts, and tough fishing conditions are likely responsible for a large portion of gear loss, and storms and strong currents also play a big role in dislodging fishing gear. The 2004 tsunami, for example, caused a major loss of gear and a debris problem in the Indian Ocean. In the northeast, Superstorm Sandy dislodged lots of fishing gear, which NOAA is now working to map and assess.

It’s also unclear exactly how much harm all this ghost gear is causing. We know that ghost gear continues catching fish, marine mammals, and sea turtles—including endangered species—long after it is abandoned. We also know that it can physically harm fragile bottom habitat like corals and kelp and that it can carry invasive species from one region to another. In addition to these environmental issues, ghost gear can create navigational hazards and safety problems and can interact negatively with active fishing gear. Some studies have attempted to quantify the effects of certain types of gear in certain areas, but without knowing how much ghost gear is in the ocean, it’s hard to know exactly what the impacts are.

The good news is that a strong community of divers, fishermen, conservationists, and other stakeholders has formed to remove this debris from the ocean and mitigate the effects of ghost fishing. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, created in 2006, provides technical advice and information to partner groups interested in removing marine debris. To date, it has collected more than 2.1 million pounds of gear.

Here in New England, its partner groups include Fishing for Energy, a partnership that works in two ways to mitigate the ghost fishing problem—first, by providing bins at ports for fishermen to easily dispose of derelict gear, and second, by providing funding to partnerships to remove marine debris. Recently, Fishing for Energy partnered with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and fishing crews from Cape Cod to remove nearly ten tons of ghost fishing gear, including 320 lobster traps.

Other groups like the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean have also been working to assess and remove marine debris in the Gulf of Maine for years. You can even get involved by conducting your own debris cleanup—whether walking on the shore or diving beneath the waves—and sending in information to be added to their database.

We still have a lot to learn about what ghost gear and other debris is out there, where we can find it, and what sort of impacts it’s having on marine ecosystems. In the meantime, collaborations between all ocean users can help lessen the impacts of ghost fishing.

A bowhead whale and calf in the Arctic. Photo by Corey Accardo, courtesy of NOAA.
A bowhead whale and calf in the Arctic. Photo by Corey Accardo, courtesy of NOAA.
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John Kerry, bowhead whales, and Cashes Ledge

Categories: Cashes Ledge | CLF Scoop

 

Two items caught my eye when I was skimming through the Boston Globe recently and, while neither had anything to do with Cashes Ledge, it was the first place that came to mind when I read the stories.

  1. John Kerry is convening a meeting of leaders from around the world this June to discuss global ocean health and climate change – topics that have long been a “personal passion but also the source of political frustration” of our Secretary of State. (Tell me about it!)
  2. A bowhead whale was spotted for the second time in 3 years off the coast of Cape Cod. This is a thousand mile detour south for the polar-dwelling whale.

 

Kerry may be thinking globally, but this bowhead whale is acting locally (welcome to the neighborhood!). Bowhead whales are an Arctic species, but even the northern water is getting warmer. Many Atlantic species from south of Cape Cod are moving north and offshore to deeper water, presumably where the cooler temperatures are more to their liking. But what is an Arctic animal to do when things heat up? Why is this one going south? Is it following food, or just confused by the changing temperature in its home waters?  Is the baseline shifting in New England’s waters?

The effects of climate change are not likely to be simple and predictable. Some, like warming and acidifying ocean water, can be measured and tracked and make reasonable sense. But others, like where animals will go, how their reproduction will change, and what these changes will do to the ecosystems that contain them, are mysteries we are only beginning to examine.

In the face of all this unpredictability and change, it is essential that we leave nature some space to catch up – that we set aside some especially productive areas so our ocean ecosystems have a chance to regenerate, and to find a new balance with some of the old players – the cod, the whales, the sharks, turtles, flounder, anemones, plankton and other full- and part-time residents of New England’s ocean.

You may be wondering why we keep talking about Cashes Ledge. The reason is simple – it is one of the most thriving places in our waters right now. Fish breed and shelter there, where the currents make just the right mix for a rich brew of plankton and kelp to fuel this complicated and lush wilderness .

Protecting it is simple, too. Simple, but not easy.

Which is why we will also keep asking for your help until we can ensure permanent protection of this special place. How can we expect our ocean to keep thriving if we don’t give it the space to do so?

Please join us now to protect Cashes Ledge. If you’ve already signed the petition, consider making a gift to help CLF win this fight for ocean health, so that generations to come can experience the abundance that we once took for granted in New England’s ocean.

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Announcing Our March Photo Contest Winner!

Categories: Photo Contest

Congratulations to f1.8 Photography, our winning photographer for March’s contest! We love the icy shoreline and coastal vegetation featured in this photo, which was taken in Machias, Maine.

Do you have a great photo of New England’s oceans to share?  Enter our photo contest! Each month, Brian Skerry will lead our team of judges to select a winner, who will receive a copy of Brian’s book Ocean Soul.

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 “PhotoContestNEOO”. Find out more here.

Be sure to check our our New England Ocean Odyssey Facebook page where we’ll continue to post honorable mentions from the photo contest and other great ocean photography.

We look forward to seeing your photos!