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.

Photo contest winner
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Announcing Our December Photo Contest Winner!

Categories: Photo Contest

Congratulations to Andrew Rys, our winning photographer for December’s contest! Andrew took this beautiful photo in Little Compton, Rhode Island. We love how it captures the swirling surf and the serenity of the beach in the early morning.

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!

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Untangling our Ocean with Regional Ocean Planning

Categories: CLF Scoop

Quick – who is in charge of the ocean? Good luck answering that; ocean resources are currently managed by more than 20 federal agencies and administered through a web of more than 140 different and often conflicting laws and regulations. This results in such problems as:

  • Poor communication and coordination about ocean use decisions;
  • Slow, reactive management and decisions that drag on unnecessarily to delay or prevent good projects from moving forward;
  • Exclusion from the process – not all ocean users feel like they have a say in decisions;
  • Difficulty sharing information about uses – it’s hard to make sound decisions without having all the facts in one place.

 

Check out the short video above – our concerned octopus has a great idea for helping to change this: regional ocean planning.

Happily, New England is leading the charge in regional ocean planning, a process that brings together all ocean users – from fishermen to whale watchers, from beachgoers to renewable energy developers, to help us figure out how to share the ocean sustainably and maintain the benefits these resources provide for us all.

To learn more please visit Conservation Law Foundation’s regional ocean planning page, where we have podcasts, fact sheets, and updates on New England’s very active ocean planning process.

 

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

shark-new-year-2
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Wishing you a Fin-tastic 2014!

Categories: Creature Features

Thank you so much for joining us on our New England Ocean Odyssey. We hope you stick around for another year of inspiring photography, heartfelt ocean conservation stories, and good clean shark fun! Happy New Year!

Thanks to Michel Labrecque for this photo contest winning blue shark image - it was reallly fun to dress up.