Cashes Ledge: New England’s Ocean Oasis Now at Risk from Harmful Trawling

Leah Fine

Cashes Ledge harbors the largest, deepest kelp forest on the eastern seaboard.

Cashes Ledge harbors the largest, deepest kelp forest on the eastern seaboard.

Eighty miles off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, lies one of New England’s most spectacular ecological treasures. Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range, supports some of the most diverse, dynamic, and productive habitat in the Gulf of Maine, including the largest and deepest kelp forest in the region and possibly in the North Atlantic. Because this area has been protected from bottom trawling for almost 15 years, the kelp forest and its related complex rocky bottom habitat harbors some of the largest and most productive fish in the region. Cashes Ledge is exactly the type of habitat scientists say we should protect if we are to ever restore the grossly depleted Atlantic cod. But now, Cashes Ledge is at immediate risk of being opened to destructive bottom trawling.

Cashes Ledge deserves protection. Please sign our petition asking NOAA to maintain protection for the entire Cashes Ledge area.

The steep ridge of Cashes Ledge rises sharply from the seafloor, from the ocean basin at 600 feet beneath the surface to the high peak of Ammen Rock at just 40 feet from the surface waves. This unique bathymetry creates a phenomenon known as internal waves, which carry nutrient-rich cold waters up from the depths to the warm and sunny surface. This mixing creates ideal conditions for spectacular primary productivity, which in turn supports a rich community of marine wildlife.

The kelp forest and rocky sea floor of Cashes Ledge aren’t the only important places in this area. To the west and north, Fippennies Ledge and Sigsbee Ridge link with Cashes Ledge to form an extensive, horseshoe-shaped suite of productive habitat. In the middle of this horseshoe, a muddy basin gathers the nutrients that fuel this vibrant community. The slopes down to this basin support an incredible diversity of marine ocean life from lush mussel beds to fields of anemones, and even a rare blue sponge.

The incredible abundance of this area also supports migrating North Atlantic right whales, sea turtles, blue and porbeagle sharks, bluefin tuna and the increasingly rare Atlantic wolffish. Such an abundant and diverse array of marine life in a relatively small area makes Cashes Ledge an ecological marvel.

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In recognition of the remarkable value of this habitat, the New England Fishery Management Council closed the area around Cashes Ledge to damaging bottom trawling and scallop dredging nearly 15 years ago. This protected status allowed previously trawled habitat areas to recover and has supported the health of juvenile and spawning fish. It has also allowed Cashes Ledge to serve as an underwater laboratory for numerous marine scientists, providing an opportunity to study ecosystem functioning and biodiversity in a rare environment that is isolated from the polluted waters of coastal habitats and less impacted by commercial fishing.

But now, near the end of an eight-year process to develop a comprehensive habitat plan for New England’s fisheries, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to eliminate protection for nearly three quarters of the Cashes Ledge protected area.

The NEFMC's current proposal would eliminate protection for nearly three quarters of the current protected area around Cashes Ledge.

The NEFMC’s current proposal would eliminate protection for nearly three quarters of the current protected area around Cashes Ledge.

Despite the chance to maintain protections for all of Cashes Ledge, the commercially-driven Fishery Management Council voted to eliminate protections for about three-quarters of the Cashes Ledge protected area. Despite overwhelming evidence of the ecological value of this area, and despite a legal requirement “to minimize to the extent practicable the adverse effects on such habitat caused by fishing and identify other actions to encourage the conservation and enhancement of such habitat,” the Council voted to eliminate protection for all areas except a small sliver around Ammen Rock and the peak of the ridge, but open Fippennies Ledge, Sigsbee Ridge, and Cashes Basin to destructive trawling and dredging.

The final decision will not likely be made until September, but we now have the opportunity to tell the Council and NOAA that eliminating protection for some of the best habitat in the Gulf of Maine is the wrong way to go. NOAA will soon announce a formal comment period on the proposal, including a series of public hearings around New England, and we’ll provide updates as this comment period and public hearings are announced. But why wait? Cashes Ledge deserves protection. Please sign our petition asking NOAA to maintain protection for the entire Cashes Ledge area.

For more information on Cashes Ledge, see our fact sheet.

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