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.

Changing Planet

,

Meet the Author
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.