Feeding Whale
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Now is the Time to be Part of Ocean Planning in New England!

Categories: Events/Calendar

Amazing wildlife like this feeding humpback whale, gorgeous scenery, a natural playground to enjoy with our children – there are so many reasons to appreciate New England’s ocean. But there is also an unprecedented amount of change in the ocean right now: renewable energy has hit the water, our fisheries are in tremendous flux and some of our most iconic and economically important stocks are in true peril, our waters are rapidly warming and getting more acidic, and we are seeing accelerating coastal erosion in some of our most heavily developed shorelines.

 

The consequences of coastal erosion in New England are likely to be sever in the coming decades, as seen on the coast of Plymouth, MA. Photo by David L. Ryan of the Boston Globe.

The consequences of coastal erosion in New England are likely to be sever in the coming decades, as seen on the coast of Plymouth, MA. Photo by David L. Ryan of the Boston Globe.

 

NOW is the time for you to be part of the planning process that is taking place to better coordinate our coastal and ocean uses in the face of all these changes. Everyone who cares about the ocean and how we use it should have a voice in the planning – a “seat at the table.”

 

 

Ralf Meyer, Green Fire Productions Creative Director, on location in Boston Harbor. Photo by Green Fire Productions.

Ralf Meyer, Green Fire Productions Creative Director, on location filming Ocean Frontiers in Boston Harbor. Photo by Green Fire Productions.

 

How can you get involved?

Learn about ocean planning! There is a fantastic new film called Ocean Frontiers that tells stories about ocean planning from people and places that might surprise you: farmers in Iowa, shipping companies in New England, and fishermen in Oregon – all committed to planning and doing things better for ocean health. Find an Ocean Frontiers screening near you, or host your own!

Be part of the process! We are in the throes of a first-in-the-nation regional ocean planning process, and we need you to get involved! The Northeast Regional Planning Body is holding a series of public meetings throughout New England to tell people what’s going on in ocean planning and to find out what your questions and comments are. This process is so much more effective and meaningful when people who care about the management of our ocean and coasts get involved.

Stay Informed! We will keep bringing you stories about ocean planning here and at CLF.org. Check out the New England Ocean Action Network  to stay up on the latest planning news. NEOAN is a network of diverse groups – fishermen, surfers, aquariums, conservationists, renewable energy developers, and others – who all support the ocean planning process in New England.

Does New England’s ocean inspire you, comfort you, or leave you awestruck? If you care about the ocean, then make your connection with the sea part of our new ocean planning story.

NEFSC researcher Larry Alade holds a tagged monkfish
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Monkfish Look Like They Could Bite Your Foot Off

This fish looks like it was designed by Stephen King, with its angular gaping mouth, needle-like teeth, and beady eyes. Imagine your reaction if you were enjoying a refreshing dip in the ocean then you looked down and saw that face staring up at you. I pride myself on surfing with the sharks in the bracing New England ocean, but seeing that crazy face by my feet might just leave me unhinged for a minute. These fish range throughout the North Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, so I know they’re around.

Really, though, your odds of encountering a monkfish are very low and if you did, they probably wouldn’t attack you. They usually hang out on the ocean floor, where they lie in wait, lure in prey with a filament-like “esca” that sprouts from between their eyes, and snatch up whatever unfortunate little fish happens to show interest.

As effective as this strategy seems to be, this bottom-dweller does get up near the surface every now and then – to eat birds. Researchers have recently discovered little puffins in the bellies of monkfish that were caught between 275 and 495 feet down, off the coast of Chatham, MA. Monkfish fish get around! And, I will confess, I didn’t even know we had puffins in New England.

I would really love to see some Crittercam  footage of a monkfish swimming up from the dark, cold depths and rushing a cute little unsuspecting puffin. Pow! Like a shark attack, but smaller and uglier. I’m going to be thinking about this the next time my feet are dangling off my surfboard (although researchers think the puffins were diving down 10 or 20 feet when the monkfish nabbed them). Still – as if the shark anxiety wasn’t bad enough.

Here are some other interesting monkfish facts (these and more can be found in this fact sheet from World Wildlife Fund).

  • Monkfish are also called goosefish, bellyfish, allmouth, and lawyer (that last one seems a little harsh).
  • These fish have been found almost 3,000 feet down.
  • They can eat things larger than they are, and are not very picky. Cod, lobster, and birds are all fair game.
  • Monkfish was not considered marketable in the U.S., until a government funded marketing campaign convinced people they were missing out on something that Europeans had been onto for a while.

Julia Child and a large monkfish. © copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]

Julia Child and a large monkfish. Copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]

 While monkfish have yet to show any interest in eating us, we do seem to enjoy eating them. In New England alone, commercial landings have averaged 35 million pounds a year since 1990. Hopefully this important and unique Gulf of Maine dweller will be able to withstand the  fishing pressure that is now upon them. Given the state of collapse of our cod fishery, healthier bottom dwelling fish stocks are being increasingly targeted to help sustain the fleet. This sort of action might backfire if populations of monkfish and other groundfish begin to plummet as the cod have, leaving fishermen with less and less. Worse, there are pressures on groundfish other than fishing, like warming seas and ocean acidification, which make it important that we set some habitat aside for our ocean ecosystems to adapt and build resiliency to our changing environment.

As odd looking and voracious as monkfish are, they are an important part of our New England ocean ecosystem. I hope that our fisheries managers and researches keep tabs on monkfish populations so we don’t imperil this true ocean oddity. Especially since I haven’t seen that Crittercam footage yet.

Sheepshead Fish Teeth
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Sheepshead Fish are a True Ocean Oddity

April is National Humor Month, so here’s some evidence that nature can tell a good joke. Meet the sheepshead fish. I can tell you all about where it lives, how big it gets, all the usual statistics. But wouldn’t you rather know about those teeth?

Sheepshead fish eat all kinds of things – from soft-bodied marine worms to clams and barnacles – so they need teeth that can accommodate this dietary range. Teeth like ours, as it turns out (although I’m not sure we could crunch up a clam shell). They also have a bonus feature we lack –  extra rows behind the front teeth.

Crazy teeth aside, they are a pretty attractive looking fish, with vertical black and silver stripes that have earned them the nickname “convict fish.”

Photo credit: Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Photo credit: Virginia Institute of Marine Science

These odd little fish are actually quite common – ranging from Cape Cod to Florida. In spite of the impressive looking chompers, they only get to be about 30 inches long, and 15 pounds. I hear they are tasty and popular with recreational fishermen, but I’m not sure I could get past those teeth.

 

Maine Lobster
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The New Signs of Spring

Categories: Creature Features

Spring has sprung, New England style. All the signs are there – the crocuses came up then got covered by sloppy, wet snow, and there’s a bunch of mud underneath it all. What New Englander doesn’t love this time of year? We get to think about shedding our winter wrappings and revealing our tender flesh to the warmer weather.

This happens in the ocean, too. Maine lobsters typically molt (shed the old shell and grow a new one) in the spring, as the water gets warmer. Lobstermen know this, and structure their fishing time around it. Richard Nelson, a lobsterman in Friendship, Maine, says he tries to catch the hard-shell lobsters in early spring before the molting starts, and then starts catching the new shedders right around when the summer tourists show up. The shedders are easier to eat, with their softer shells, and are sweeter tasting. But the shedders are also more fragile, and can’t be shipped very well, so they need to be eaten locally or sent to a processor.

“Lobstermen usually look forward to the shedders as newfound abundance,” said Richard. Lobsters that were previously too small to keep are bigger after they’ve shed, and are more likely to be of legal size. Normally, the appearance of the shedders is good news, but last year the lobsters in Maine were molting a month earlier than usual, which threw a monkey wrench into the whole fishing season. The tourists weren’t there yet to eat the shedders, and the processors were busy with Canadian lobsters, so they couldn’t take the Maine product.

And there are signs that it’s happening again this year, according to Bob Bayer, Executive Director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. Warmer than usual ocean water could be driving the lobsters from their deeper winter homes towards their shallower molting grounds too early for the summer tourists and processors to consume.

This is not the only change we’re seeing. According to Bob, there is a lobster population boom underway from north of Cape Cod well up into Canada. They are increasing in number from year to year, to the point that they are might be overcrowding the ecosystem, which might make them more vulnerable to disease and is possibly leading to cannibalism.

Why are there so many lobsters? Bob thinks there might be few factors at play. First, he thinks it’s possible that water pollution south of Cape Cod might be inhibiting lobster recruitment, while waters to the north are cleaner. Temperature is probably a factor as well, for a couple of reasons. First, lobsters grow more quickly in warmer water. Newly hatched lobsters spend their larval stages near the surface of the water, where they are more exposed to predators, and have to develop adequately before they can settle on the relative safety of the ocean floor. When they grow faster, they reach safety faster. The second reason temperature could be helping lobster populations to increase is that warmer waters can increase the amount of food available to lobsters, which fuels their faster growth -  they only grow quickly if there is enough to eat.

If you add it all up – warm, clean water with lots to eat, you get population growth. What usually keeps growth from becoming a boom is predators – in this case, fish like cod and haddock. Cod and haddock, you’ve probably heard, are not having a population boom. So with fewer things around to eat them, except for hungry tourists – and there’s a short season for those – the lobster continue to boom.

Spring is a time of change, of re-growth and renewal. It is also turning into a time of more bad news for New England lobstermen, who depend on a healthy lobster population with a predictable seasonal molt to make a living. Last year, even with the abundance of lobsters in the sea, fishermen struggled with low market prices due to the glut of product. The entire ecosystem in our New England waters is shifting, and it’s anybody’s guess how things will end up, but it seems clear that making a living from the sea is becoming more unpredictable.

Under the Ice
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Getting Educated – Sea Rovers Style

I’ll be honest with you – I tend to stay on top of the water when I’m in the ocean. Or, I try, anyway. As a surfer the goal is to spend as little time underwater as possible. Especially in the winter. But I’m starting to think I’m missing out on something by avoiding the chilly depths of our Gulf of Maine.

The Boston Sea Rovers, one of the oldest underwater clubs in the nation, hosted its 59th annual show this past weekend, and I was lucky enough to be there with some fellow CLFers. We went to talk about the importance of preserving valuable habitat, like Cashes Ledge, for protecting our fragile ocean ecosystems and helping our dwindling groundfish stocks recover.

We hoped that by showing people Brian Skerry’s beautiful photographs of the gorgeous kelp forest and amazing animals of Cashes Ledge, the divers would be inspired to help us protect it. They were – we got hundreds of signatures on our petition to ask our fisheries managers to protect essential habitat in the Gulf of Maine. And, while we may have gone there to talk, we ended up doing a lot of listening as well. Here are just a few things I learned after spending two days talking with divers:

  • The Gulf of Maine is an excellent place to dive. There are so many wonderful animals to see here.
  • But visibility often stinks. This is partly due to the very productive nature of our waters. As phytoplankton bloom and the food chain gets going, it gets a little harder to see. Or, poor visibility can be due to human activities in the water (see next bullet).
  • The ocean floor looks pretty bad after a bottom trawler comes through. I heard this dozens of times this weekend. “It looks like a freshly plowed field,” said one diver, and you can see the sediment plume from miles away.
  • The next time I want to talk to divers about the amazing beauty of Cashes Ledge, I’d better bring a map so they know how to get there and see for themselves.
  • The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Discovery Channel have partnered to develop a robot that can follow a white shark. Seriously. I saw the footage. More on this later in the month (yes, I am totally geeking out on this).

 

I also learned that, in spite of difficulties equalizing my ears underwater, there may be ways I can still get down below, if I take things very slowly. I’m pretty stoked to find out if that’s true. My 10 year old son, who was with me this weekend, wants to learn also. Even more motivating!

I’m not sure I’ll be as hardy as diver Zachary Whalen, who took this awesome picture under the ice, but maybe I can at least go down below on a warmer day and watch the seals that I usually only see when they pop their heads up next to me while I surf. But if there are waves – I’m bringing my board.