Located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, only 25 nautical miles from Boston and three nautical miles from Gloucester and Provincetown, lies Stellwagen Bank, an underwater plateau that is home to a wide variety of marine life and is one of New England’s special ocean places. Stellwagen has been known for its highly productive fishing grounds since the early 1600s, and it is one of the few remaining hotspots of the Atlantic wolffish, a bottom-dwelling fish with a distinctive mouth full of sharp and wayward teeth that is facing extinction in the United States. However, because of its heavily-trafficked location and desirable biological abundance, Stellwagen has been faced with a multitude of human-induced pressures, leaving its ecosystems at risk. Species such as the wolffish, along with commercial species such as cod, are threatened when modern fishing gear is dragged along the bottom of the ocean, leveling the seafloor and destroying habitat features like biogenic depressions, burrows, nooks or small caves that allow fish to hide to catch prey, avoid predators, and protect their eggs.
In 1992 Stellwagen Bank was designated as a National Marine Sanctuary, which meant that some harmful activities (including sand and gravel mining, drilling for oil and natural gas, and discharging pollutants) were prohibited – but all fishing activities were allowed to continue. In 1998, however, an amendment to the groundfish fishery management plan established a closed area in the Gulf of Maine (the Western Gulf of Maine Closure, or WGOMC) that overlaps Stellwagen and prohibits the use of particularly destructive bottom-tending fishing gear within its boundaries. (Recreational fishing and less-destructive commercial fishing are still allowed within the closure.) The idea behind this closure is that if gear that destroys the sea bottom is kept out, ocean wildlife and features on the seafloor will have the chance to rebuild and a rebuilt thriving benthic habitat will mean healthier fish stocks.
If the WGOMC has this desired effect, it will be important not only for the marine life within its boundaries, but also as an indication that this strategy should be replicated in other areas in need of protecting and rebuilding ocean communities and associated managed species. A recent NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries report compares protected areas within the WGOMC with areas of initially similar habitat type outside the WGOMC for the period 1998-2005 to see if the closure was indeed having a positive effect. What do the results say? Overall, the study’s findings indicate that the fish and wildlife inside the WGOMC closure area are recovering from impacts of destructive fishing gear. However, the report cautions that the seafloor community is changing over time and may not attain a stable state (in theories of ecology, ecosystems change over time until they reach a final, stable phase). Still, the WGOMC is recognized as an important area for conserving biodiversity, and the report concludes that the use of closures remains a valuable tool for maintaining ocean habitat. While this certainly indicates that further study of the WGOMC is needed and that recovery is not complete, it also supports the case for protecting vulnerable underwater habitats in order to allow our healthy ocean ecosystems to grow and thrive.