Healthy Sharks – Healthy Oceans

Aug 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Shortfin Mako

I love diving with makos, but they have a very different behavior than other sharks. They come in appearing to be more agitated. They’re much more hyper and jacked up.” – Brian Skerry

Mako sharks are built to move. They are very acrobatic – sometimes leaping high into the air –and are also extremely fast. Some scientists think they are the fastest fish, possibly going over 50 mph at times. (Fun fact – makos are one of the only “warm-blooded” fish, which helps explain why they can move so fast, even in colder water.) Makos need wide open spaces and healthy places to eat and reproduce. The health of our oceans depends on healthy top predator populations, and healthy top predators depend on healthy oceans.

Our nation has taken a major step forward in protecting the health of our oceans with the National Ocean Policy – which calls better management through agency coordination, science-based decisions and robust public and stakeholder involvement.  One important priority of the National Ocean Policy is to protect ocean habitat and wildlife while supporting sustainable new and traditional uses of our ocean.

Regional ocean planning and ecosystem-based management are two other key components of the National Ocean Policy that can go a long way in protecting our top predators. Regional ocean planning is a process that brings together all our ocean stakeholders – from fishermen to whale watchers, from beachgoers to renewable energy developers – to help us figure out how to share the ocean sustainably. This process helps all New Englanders use and enjoy our ocean and coasts while making sure we protect ocean wildlife and habitats and maintain the benefits these resources provide for us all.

For an example of how regional ocean planning can protect marine wildlife, check out this blog about endangered North Atlantic right whales and shipping lanes.

Collecting and sharing good data, and using it to help make ocean management decisions, are some of the keys to succesful regional ocean planning. If you are wondering how this might apply to mako sharks, check out this app from NOAA that allows fishermen to share information about caught and released makos – to literally put that shark on the map. NOAA says “Overfishing is occurring on the North Atlantic shortfin mako shark population. By releasing shortfin mako sharks that are unintentionally caught or caught for sport, fishermen can lead the way for conserving this shark species.” Now that sounds like some good planning.

Waves of Change: Regional Ocean Planning Works for Ships and Whales

Jul 17, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Right whale skim feeding off Provincetown, MA. Copyright Brian Skerry.

Right whale skim feeding off Provincetown, MA. Photo: Brian Skerry

Shipping lanes in and around San Francisco Bay are being changed to protect the many whales that feed in its krill-rich waters. Blue whales, fin whales, and humpbacks will all benefit from the changes. This action took two years of collaboration, data-sharing, and negotiating among the shipping industry, government agencies, and environmental groups. This, in a nutshell, is the regional ocean planning process.

Why does this matter to a New England conservation group? Well, besides the fact that everybody loves a happy ending, New England has been a leader in this type of effort for many years now.

If there is one dramatic example of the need to coordinate our activities in New England’s ocean it is the tale of our beloved but extremely endangered North Atlantic right whales and the shipping traffic that was threatening their recovery.

Right whales love our productive Gulf of Maine waters – they find an abundance of their favorite krill and copepods that teem in our coastal areas. People are keeping a close eye on these urban whales, since there may be fewer than 500 of them left on the planet. This careful watching was why we knew that shipping traffic in and out of Boston Harbor was causing big problems for the right whales. In short – right whales are shallow feeders, making them highly vulnerable to fatal ship strikes. And each whale matters in such a small population.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary staff decided to take action to protect the right whales in a bold and unprecedented way. Using 25 years’ worth of whale sighting and state of the art acoustic research Stellwagen Bank officials discovered that the shipping lanes through the Sanctuary also contained the highest concentration of whales, resulting in too often fatal collisions. In a process that took three years and involved collaboration with the Port of Boston, researchers with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Cornell Bioacoustic Research Program, and a Texas-based energy company that relies on shipping in and out of the harbor – high quality data on the movements of whales in and around the Sanctuary was mapped and compared with shipping traffic in and out of Boston Harbor.

As a result, in 2007 the Sanctuary slightly altered the shipping lanesreducing whale strikes by 81 percent.

This wouldn’t have happened without scientists, conservationists, local officials, federal agencies and private industry deciding to work together.

To ensure continuing whale protection there are buoys “listening” for right whales throughout the bay, and there’s even an app for ship captains so they can receive whale location updates on their cell phones – alerting them to slow down or avoid certain areas. A lot of people came together to create an innovative solution to this complicated problem by using the principles of regional ocean planning. Everyone who had a stake in the process had a seat at the table.

This type of coordination is the heart of regional ocean planning. It’s simply about making sure everyone has a say in what in happens in our busy waters, including those of us who value protecting wildlife and natural habitats. As we have more happening in the Gulf of Maine, more ships, more whales, more renewable energy development, we need to be careful to organize these activities in a way that also protects existing commercial and recreational uses.

The pioneering Massachusetts and Rhode Island state ocean use plans are serving as the building blocks of New England’s regional ocean plan for federal waters. CLF is at the vanguard of ocean planning, innovating in New England what has become a national policy initiative intended to improve stewardship of vulnerable marine wildlife and habitats with responsible ocean uses.

Waves of Change: Making a Plan for Coastal Pollution

Jul 10, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Misquamicut Beach, Rhode Island

A day at the beach in Rhode Island. Photo: Juliancolton2

It’s July, it’s hot, and – as long as there are no big sharks around – you’d like to go swimming. There’s only one problem: you get to the beach and find out you might get sick if you go in the water. In New England, it’s more likely than not that the unhealthy water condition was caused by polluted runoff from a storm. Mark Twain said, if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes – but, these days, you may be waiting a full day or more to go to the beach even after the sun has come out.

In New England, over 800 beaches are monitored under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000, administered and tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The BEACH Act allows funding for coastal states, territories, and tribes to monitor beaches for public health risks and inform the public of those risks.

A recent EPA BEACH report shows unhealthy swimming conditions in New England aren’t going away. In fact, they may be getting worse. A 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) show closures and advisories at our beaches in 2011 reached the third highest level in the 22 years that NRDC has been keeping track.

The things that make is sick in the water mostly come from the land, and we need a better way to manage this foul problem. The pollution in our beaches is rooted in the way we plan and maintain our wastewater, roads, parking lots, and coastal development. Unhealthy swimming conditions that result in a beach advisory or closure can result from sewer overflows, treatment plant malfunctions, stormwater runoff, waste from boats, leakage of septic systems, or pet and wildlife waste.

Percent of Monitored Beaches Impacted by a Beach Advisory or Closure by State in Three New England States (2007-2011)

Problems caused by a series of small sources add up in big ways and are some of the hardest to solve. The solutions require comprehensive planning at multiple levels of government and management. New England states have taken important steps to monitor and inform the public about dangerous swimming conditions, but the next steps will be addressing the causes of beach closures and advisories. This will involve a variety of decision makers and stakeholders – from transportation planners, to municipal wastewater managers, to individual property owners and developers – just to name a few.

Regional Ocean Planning is a process that allows everyone who has a stake in the health of the ocean to have a say in how it’s managed. It’s a process that can be used to address problems like this by providing a platform for everyone from wastewater managers to beachgoers to talk about how their decisions can impact the value of our resources. We need this type of planning and cooperation to help ensure that a day at the beach is, well, a day at the beach.

New England’s Oceans: National Pride, National Treasure

Jul 3, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This week, along with millions of Americans, I will cheer at a parade, join a BBQ, and watch fireworks. I will do this with my family, in a familiar place, with familiar faces, and celebrate this most American of holidays.

July 4th has always meant a great deal to me, first as an American boy growing up, and now as an American environmentalist. It is a great holiday because it is a holiday that makes us proud of what we’ve accomplished. Independence. Self reliance. Prosperity.

These values are often associated with places: when we think of America, we think of the icons of America. Yellowstone. Zion. And New England’s very own Acadia National Park. As Americans, preserving these natural treasures is among our proudest accomplishments. Our oceans should be no different. Here, in the Gulf of Maine, we have George’s Bank, Stellwagen Bank, and Cashes Ledge – a spectacular undersea mountain range – where you find steep canyons, deep kelp forests, and vibrant, charismatic marine life. Their beauty and majesty are breathtaking.

Why, then, do these special ocean places not stir us like our special places on land? I believe it’s because  we don’t see them. We don’t think of our underwater treasures as icons of America because we can’t light up our grill next to a kelp forest and watch seals swim by, like we can an eagle flying over head.

There can be no doubt that our oceans are national treasures. To help raise awareness – and to literally raise these places out of the sea and into our living rooms and offices – we have launched the New England Ocean Odyssey with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry. The photos from this first-of-its-kind journey will show just how magnificent, and how fragile, the ocean can be. Indeed, they already have. This early collection of photos from Brian is only the beginning.

The photo of a sea star, featured above, is a bright burst of color against a dark backdrop – a firework against a night sky. The seal is part friend, part pastor, welcoming you and praying at the same time. And the image of the right whale bursts with strength. It swells with American pride.

Just as there is no doubt that our oceans are treasures, so too is there no doubt that they are being damaged. Bottom trawlers damage huge swaths of the ocean floor with their heavy chains, doors and dredges, likened by some scientists to a bulldozer scraping the delicate floor of a pristine forest. New England’s oceans are rising much faster than predicted. They are also becoming more acidic from harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Recent record increases in precipitation may even be fundamentally altering plankton production, jeopardizing the very productivity of our marine web of life.

As you celebrate Independence Day this week, and think about America’s independence, think about what makes us proud to be Americans. Think about the pride we take in our National Parks, and the foresight we had to protect them and so many other treasured landscapes. And think about how much we depend on, but how little protection we give to, our oceans.

In our increasingly interdependent world, that is pushing the limits of our ecosystems, certain renewed forms of independence would be a good thing.

Independence from fossil fuels.

Independence from unhealthy food and transportation systems.

Independence from water-polluting infrastructure of all types.

The natural independence – and security – for our children and grandchildren, that flow from creating a truly sustainable future.

And independence that comes with the pride of protecting America’s natural resources – on land and under our shining sea.

Llike so many of us, I love New England’s ocean treasures. This July 4th, stand with CLF in remembering and protecting them, so our children and grandchildren can love them too.

Waves of Change: Planning for New England’s Unprecedented Sea Level Rise

Jun 29, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Waves off West Barnstable, Massachusetts. Photo: nd-nʎ@flickr

Sea levels are rising 3-4 times faster along the east coast, from North Carolina to Massachusetts, than the global average, says a new study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). This “hot spot” of rising water puts us at unique risk from the changes that are happening to our ocean and will “increase the vulnerability of coastal cities to flooding, and beaches and wetlands to deterioration,” according to the report.

The reasons for our higher than average sea level rise are complex and involve changes in ocean circulation, temperature, and salinity, among other things (read the full report here if you want all the details). But you don’t need to understand why it’s happening to know that this is a problem we need to figure out how to manage. Look at the recent debate in Matunuck, Rhode Island over whether to “Save the Beach or Save your House” for an example of why this matters – and matters right now.

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. We have to find a better way to plan for our oceans and coasts in the face of the unprecedented changes that are already happening to them.

And there IS a better way. Regional Ocean Planning is one of nine objectives of the National Ocean Policy. It’s a way to make decisions about our ocean resources that helps us factor in multiple uses and changing conditions – by using the best data and latest information and, most importantly, working together.

Regional Ocean Planning is a science-based process of improving decisions about ocean resources before conflict arises – by involving everyone who has a stake in those resources, including municipalities, conservation groups, recreational users, and commercial and industrial entities.

The rate of sea level rise is predicted to continue increasing if our global temperatures keep rising. Hopefully our level of planning will rise as well.

Dive Log: Cashes Ledge

Jun 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Here they are! Some of Brian’s first ever pictures of Cashes Ledge. Every picture tells a story – but we are lucky enough to have some real stories to tell about these awesome pictures. We caught up with Brian shortly after he visited Cashes Ledge and asked him about the dive. Brian filled us in on some of the exciting details of this bona fide ocean odyssey:

Robin: You’ve never dived Cashes Ledge before, what were your first impressions?

Brian: As always when I am diving in a new place for the first time, all I see is chaos when I first get on the bottom, but over time I begin to zero in on specific behaviors to start making order and begin to put the puzzle together.

The kelp is beautiful, the stalks are 6-8 feet high, then they have fronds that lay horizontally for probably 10-15 more feet. They create this sea of kelp, literally a bed of kelp that you see when you first come down from the surface that looks like the bottom but isn’t. The descent line we sent down just disappeared through it. You’d follow it down to the kelp bed then you’d have to go another 6 or 8 feet to get to the bottom. It’s a false bottom of kelp fronds. It’s a lovely golden amber color, and there’s another species of kelp that’s sort of reddish, growing on the amber ones. It all looked good and lush and thick – very colorful and healthy looking.

There were lots of fish circling around. We saw quite a few red cod. There are a lot of pollock and quite a number of cod mixed in, and some of the cod are more traditionally colored, but some have the distinctive red/orange iridescent coloration.

Robin: What other kinds of wildlife did you see?

Brian: Besides pollock and cod, there were a lot of juvenile fish. We found out later they were cunner. They are bright orange when they are small, quite stunning, like the garibaldi in California. We saw quite a few whales on the surface, minke whales porpoising and coming up for air, but not close enough to photograph. There were invertebrates on the bottom, on ledges below the kelp. It’s definitely worth a lot more exploration. This is clearly a unique habitat.

Robin: Was this dive different from your expectations?

Brian: I’d heard about the Cashes Ledge kelp forest for years. People always say it’s not like California, so I expected an area that was covered in kelp on the bottom, but the brown kind that I usually see inshore, just a lot more of it – low-lying, a foot off the bottom. I didn’t expect anything like this. Stalks of kelp that were 8 feet high and long strands at the top that made this golden bed. It was very unique. The fish stayed localized, always in the area. They weren’t passing schools; they sort of hung out there. The kelp forest is probably a square mile or so – it’s a big area. But the fish were always there – in the background, silhouetted. It was very different from what I expected.

Robin: Did you see evidence of human activity in the area?

Brian: There was a tremendous amount of fishing gear out there. We tried to dive away from gear. But everybody on the trip remarked that there were a lot of fishing buoys on the surface. I think they were lobster traps, but I’m not sure. They were everywhere. This was surprising. Nobody expected this. A friend of mine remembers diving Cashes in the 80s, and said the fish used to be so thick that you couldn’t see your dive buddies. It’s not like that today, so the biomass must be down. But there was a good population of fish. I think a place like this with proper protection could come back to those levels that my friend observed 20-30 years ago.

Robin: Were there any unexpected difficulties?

Brian: No, but the currents got quite strong on Sunday and we had trouble getting to the dive-line buoy. Wearing a dry suit and 120 pounds of equipment you have to swim really hard against the current. We couldn’t get to the buoy, so the boat picked us up and we tried again and made it.

Robin: What was the water temperature?

Brian: Pretty warm for New England, probably 50 degrees.

Robin: Did the weather cause any problems?

Brian: No, the weather was really good. It progressively improved. Early Saturday it was fine, small waves, a little bumpy, but it got better and by Sunday was really calm. If the waves are big it’s hard to get back in the boat after the dive.

Robin: Was visibility low from the recent northeaster?

Brian: I don’t know why visibility was low. It was very typical of New England conditions. Turbid, but not terrible. Visibility was 20-25 feet, but hazy, not crystal clear. I tried to work close in and make some pictures that would still come out well.

Robin: Will you do anything differently next time you go to Cashes?

Brian: Not necessarily. I would like to have more time. To produce pictures in these conditions takes a lot of repeatability and serendipity. My M.O. is to dive a place over and over and keep working it, if I can. I could spend hours and hours working those fish. I’m very intrigued by the red cod. They are highly unique and beautiful with the golden kelp backdrop and green water. I would just like to do more of it.

Are you intrigued by the red cod, too? We will give you a look at those fascinating fish soon. In the meantime, enjoy some of these other sublime pictures Brian made in this vibrant special place in the Gulf of Maine!

This post was originally published on New England Ocean Odyssey.

Cashes Ledge Dive Marks First for Brian Skerry as the New England Ocean Odyssey Gets Underway

Jun 22, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Brian and crew back from Cashes Ledge.

Brian and crew back from Cashes Ledge. Copyright Brian Skerry.

“I didn’t expect anything like this. Stalks of kelp that were 8 feet high and long strands at the top that made this golden bed… This is clearly a unique habitat.”

Success! After two prior attempts foiled by bad weather and rough seas, last weekend Brian Skerry at last reached Cashes Ledge and was able to explore this extraordinary, ecologically important seascape – a first for the peripatetic Skerry. For two days Brian and his crew swam in Cashes’ unearthly kelp forests, among its waving amber fronds and remarkable red cod, making pictures that will reveal the mysteries and beauty of this unique New England treasure so far unknown to most.

About 80 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Cashes Ledge is a submerged mountain range that nearly pierces the surface of the ocean and is home to the deepest kelp forest in the North Atlantic. Fields of anemones and brightly-colored sponges produce a fascinating marine landscape surrounding Ammen Rock, the highest peak of Cashes Ledge and New England’s underwater equivalent of Mount Washington.

Cashes Ledge is important not only to marine organisms but also to people hoping to learn about the history of New England’s oceans – many scientists believe that Cashes Ledge represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

We will be sharing some of the extraordinary pictures Brian made – and the stories that go with them – next week. Stay tuned!

This is also published on New England Ocean Odyssey, which can be found here.

Celebrating World Oceans Day

Jun 8, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Breaching North Atlantic right whale. Copyright Brian Skerry.

On the occasion of World Oceans Day, it is worth reminding ourselves about how utterly dependent we are on the ocean – for the fish and shellfish that grace our dinner tables, for our summer recreation – on, in, and alongside our ocean – for the tremendous untapped renewable resources of the wind, waves and tides, and for transportation of people and goods. Oh yes, and the air – up to 70% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by the plankton in the ocean. That’s more than from all the world’s rain forests combined. The ocean absorbs about half of our carbon dioxide emissions and over 90% of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases. The ocean covers 70% of our planet and regulates the earth’s climate. Unfortunately the ocean is facing a host of troubles from climate change and acidification caused by all that carbon dioxide absorption, not to mention overfishing, seafloor habitat destruction and pollution – we need to be better stewards of this incredible resource.

As I walked on Crane Beach last weekend thinking about all of this, an early summer Northeaster whipped the ocean into a froth and unusually high tides threw up a wrack line of seaweed reaching as far as the wind sculpted sand dunes – leaving just a sliver of a beach. I was reminded that the ocean truly is the master and commander, and once again I felt humbled by the sea’s strength and beauty. I was also a little frustrated by it. Why? Brian Skerry, weather permitting, will go on his first ever dive to one of New England’s most special places – Cashes Ledge –  this Saturday and Sunday.

Cashes Ledge, located 80 miles northeast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is a 25-mile long underwater mountain chain that hosts one of the most unique, dynamic and ecologically productive areas in the Gulf of Maine. The highest peak, Ammen Rock, rises steeply off the ocean floor from 460 feet below to within 40 feet of the ocean’s surface.  There is an unbelievable diversity of ocean wildlife in this special place: North Atlantic right whales, blue sharks, bluefin tuna, herring, cod, Atlantic wolffish, sea anemones, brittle stars, brilliantly colored sea sponges, and the deepest kelp forest in the Gulf of Maine. But most of us have never seen this underwater jewel and probably never will. Unless, that is, someone goes diving and brings back spectacular photographs.

Brian’s planned dive on Cashes is just one of the many that he will be doing as part of the New England Ocean Odyssey – our 5 year partnership to bring to light the magnificent beauty that lies beneath the surface of New England’s waves. Despite all that we know about the ocean and its role in our lives, it still holds tremendous mystery. And I am happy for some mystery in these days of ceaseless information flow coming over our personal transoms 24/7 through our computers and smart phones. There is still so much we don’t know about the ocean and so much we can’t see. So gazing out to sea on that cold windy day, I wondered about what lies beneath the surface of those wild waves. My curiosity will soon be bated – at least for one special place in the Gulf of Maine.

With any luck Brian will show us just what a magnificent place Cashes Ledge is. I say with any luck, because, well, the weather has been challenging as of late. I have been electronically tethered to the Cashes Ledge weather buoy – a remarkable device that sends hourly reports on the wind, waves, water and air temperature, atmospheric pressure – hoping it brings us good news!

At the height of this week’s Northeaster sustained wind speeds at the buoy reached 25 knots with gusts up to 35 knots. And the waves reached nearly 14 feet.  Not good for diving!  But the weather seems to be moderating and we are hopeful that Brian and his dive crew will make it out to Cashes this weekend. If not this weekend, he’ll get out on another. And I can’t wait to share his photographs with you!  So today, on World Oceans Day, make sure you take the opportunity to thank our oceans for the mystery they still hold and for all that they do for each of us.

This is also published on New England Ocean Odyssey, which can be found here.

Save the Beach or Save Your House: Which Would You Choose?

Apr 25, 2012 by  | Bio |  9 Comment »

Last night, in the Town of South Kingstown, Rhode Island, the State’s coastal management agency met to hear the Town’s plea to reclassify Matunuck Beach –a natural headland bluff and coastal beach – as a manmade beach. This reclassification, the Town argued, would allow the business and home owners in the village of Matunuck to defend themselves against the rising sea and the erosion that is eating away feet of beach weekly by allowing them to build a sea wall along the beach. With less than three feet between the ocean and the state road, the Town argued that without the reclassification, the peril to its citizens and to the road, which has been there since the late 1800s, was imminent.

Many supported the reclassification and some opposed it. Legal arguments, policy arguments, and economic arguments were all advanced over the course of four hours. But, shortly before 10 p.m., the second to last public witness, advanced an argument that brought a hush to the room of hundreds.

A young woman from Matunuck approached the podium from the back of the auditorium in her jeans and flip-flops. When she began to speak she was visibly nervous and apologetic for not being as comfortable as others who preceded her. Her hands were shaky, her voice unsteady, but her point was resoundingly clear. She had lived in Matunuck for twenty-five years. She loved the village and the people in it. She had grown up playing on the south coast’s barrier beaches. I waited for her to express her support for the reclassification of the beach and the construction of a sea wall to save the town, but she expressed something else.

She thought the Town’s approach and the whole conversation we were having reflected an incredible short-sightedness and that the solutions proposed were short-spanned. She found it hard to believe that people were actually talking about trying to save a house or a road or a business on the grounds that it had been in Matunuck for 50 or 100 years. “The beach and these bluffs and this ecosystem have been here for millions of years,” she said. She expressed her genuine concern that if we allowed for the construction of a wall on this beach that we would destroy the entire barrier beach system and the hope that these beaches would be here for our children.

Here this woman stood, courageously arguing against her neighbors, and perhaps even her own self-interest to save the beach for the future. I remember thinking to myself, “so this is what climate change and sea level rise looks like when we add people to the equation.” It is people, not policies, that will have to make the hard choices between the long-term interests of a community and their own private interests. Neighbors from close-knit communities will disagree on both solutions and outcomes. Governments will have to balance long-term economic sustainability with immediate financial crises.

If we wait to respond to the inevitable, these scenes will begin to play out more often throughout our New England communities. But, if we’ve grown tired of waiting for the choices to be thrust upon us, there is something we can do about it.

We can begin to identify the strategic solutions that allow for bearable economic costs, minimal and organized relocation, and sustainable resource protection measures. We can protect our own interests and the longer-term interests of a broader community.