Changing Planet

Hope for New England’s Offshore Treasures


Sunlight on an observation platform at Mather Point. (Photo by Walter Meayers Edwards/National Geographic Creative)
Sunlight gives an old observation platform a golden glow at Mather Point in the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Walter Meayers Edwards/National Geographic Creative)

The creation of America’s national parks is an indelible part of our country’s and National Geographic’s history. Early in the 20th century, a group of reporters and businessmen, including National Geographic editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor, went on an expedition to the Sierra Nevada mountains and returned determined to begin protecting extraordinary natural, cultural and historic places—a network of parks and monuments across the United States landscape that would become an indispensable part of our nation. Next August, the National Park System will celebrate its 100th birthday.  It has been a great century of conservation, and now 12 percent of the land in the U.S. is  protected, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.

By contrast, only roughly three percent of the ocean globally is fully protected from industrial fishing and other extractive activities. Last year, at the urging of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Project, the U.S. expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, making it the largest network of marine reserves in the world. However, the U.S. government has done nothing to permanently protect any areas of the ocean near the U.S. mainland from damaging industrial fishing activity such as bottom trawling. And in 2009, the Obama Administration opened most of the U.S.’s ocean waters to oil and gas production, ending a twenty-year drilling moratorium that had spanned both Republican and Democratic Administrations.

Today, at the dawn of the next century of parks in the U.S., there is a great opportunity to permanently protect some underwater treasures within the nation’s ocean jurisdiction, an area more than twice the size of the land.  Time is running out for the very few ocean wonders nearer to our shores that remain healthy, vibrant and full of marine life.

The famed lake jellyfish of Palau. (Enric Sala)
In places such as Palau, it is easy to see the connections between the land and the sea, joined in their formation, and constantly feeding nutrients back and forth between them. (Photo by Enric Sala)

Nowhere is the need to conserve the marine environment more urgent than in New England, an area of the country where overfishing has severely depleted once bountiful fish stocks, such as cod and tuna, and destroyed huge amounts of ocean habitat. Few bright spots remain.

However, scientists have recently uncovered some offshore treasures there: an area called Cashes Ledge, plus five canyons and sea mounts, covering a total of 5,219 square miles off the coast of Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Leading marine ecologists in New England believe that these areas are rich in important species endemic to the region such as hard corals, cod, wolffish, and right whales to name a few, and thus are scientifically quite significant and ought to be conserved.

Cashes Ledge is home to many a striking sight, such as this Atlantic wolffish. (Photo by Brian Skerry)

Renowned oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Sylvia Earle, recently completed an expedition to Cashes Ledge. She described it as “the Yellowstone of the North Atlantic.” In her view, it is truly “a unique formation, an underwater extension of the mountains of Acadia National Park, an amazing gathering of fish and other wildlife known only to fishermen until recent years when divers and scientists have explored and documented the rich biodiversity of this glorious, golden forest.”

Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine
A kelp forest waves in the currents at Cashes Ledge, 70 miles off the coast of Maine. (Photo by Brian Skerry)

These areas are rich in great part because they are currently closed to industrial fishing, but there have been calls to open them to fishing at some point in the future. That would be a shame. Creating “blue havens” in New England where industrial fishing and oil drilling would be banned, and fish and other marine wildlife could reproduce and thrive indefinitely, is good policy.

It would actually help fishermen in the region because the fish will continually spill over into the much larger areas where fishing is permitted. Not to mention saving these areas for the benefit of science, and for future generations to enjoy, just as we saved Yellowstone, Yosemite, and hundreds of other natural treasures on land.

Preserving these terrestrial areas took foresight and leadership one hundred years ago. Preserving our ocean treasures will take no less, but it’s an idea whose time has come.

If you would like to support permanent protection for Cashes Ledge and the New England Seamounts and Canyons, sign this petition.

Monica Medina is the Senior Director for International Ocean Policy at the National Geographic Society. She is determined to help save endangered wildlife and the last wild places in the ocean.
  • Ginny

    safe and protect ocean!

  • Meghan

    “However, the U.S. government has done nothing to permanently protect any areas of the ocean near the U.S. mainland from damaging industrial fishing activity such as bottom trawling”.
    This is a deliberately misleading statement forming the basic premise of the entire article. First, studies have shown bottom trawling does not have negative impacts in every area and may actually increase productivity of the ecosystem in some cases, by stirring up food for resident fish.
    Secondly, accusations of “industrial fishing” on the East Coast, where most vessels are limited to 165 feet maximum, (as opposed to other coasts of the US and other countries such as European nations where vessels may range over 300 feet) is a mischaracterization of the New England fleet- where vessels tend to be much smaller than in other areas of the world or even the nation. Most New England vessels are owner/operated, small family fishing businesses, not “industrial ocean fleets” as exist in many other nations. Furthermore, New England has also been a leader in innovative trawl designs that protect ecosystem components.
    Third, to tell the public that no protection has been afforded the ocean or ecosystem in this area is a blatant lie. In the Mid Atlantic region, all bottom tending fishing activities have been prohibited in water deeper than 450/500 meters (although other activities such as offshore drilling or ocean mining have not been banned). In the New England region, the Habitat Amendment-resulting from an 11 year process with much scientific deliberation- has recently identified specific habitat areas of protection, in addition to many measures already in place such as rolling closures of areas, spawning closures, gear restricted areas, permanent closures, right whale closures/measures, etc. In fact, New England fisheries have already been excluded from thousands of square miles of ocean areas over the past 20 years. And the fact that such biodiverse areas as are mentioned in this article exist in New England after 400 years of commercial fishing activity is a testament to the fishing community’s responsible stewardship of our nation’s natural resources.
    Fourth, management of fishing area is legislatively delegated to the regional Fishery Management Councils, which provides an open public process for managing these natural resources. Signing executive designations of non fishing areas removes public participation in the process and eliminates collaborative stakeholder input, which directly contradicts Congressional intent and legislative direction.
    And finally, while this article demonizes responsible fishing communities, it remains silent about the potential for offshore drilling, offshore ocean mining, offshore wind facilities and other true industrial uses that threaten serious pollutants and permanent destruction of bottom habitat in the region through construction of industrial structures on the ocean floor. The public should be asking themselves why.

  • Will B

    We need more MPA’s (marine protected areas) and other forms of conservation in all the worlds oceans! History has shown us that traditional strategies and regulation to manage fisheries is not working. Fisherman should be leading the charge since there will be no more fish to catch if they don’t agree to leave some areas untouched, such as breeding and nursery habitat. I also found it intriguing that the article chose to include the Rhode Island and Connecticut coasts (which is on the other side of the Cape from Cashes Ledge), but omit the New Hampshire coast.

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