Like a stroll through a Dr. Seuss garden

By Russell Bassett
Clean Water Digital Campaigner

Mountains higher than the Appalachians, canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, miles of forest, and a rich diversity of wildlife: Would you believe that’s a description of the Atlantic Ocean?

 Cashes Ledges

Some 80 miles southeast of Portland, Maine, lies Cashes Ledge, which features the largest cold-water kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard. This lush kelp provides superb habitat for a vast array of ocean wildlife including economically-important fish such as cod and pollock, as well as rare species like wolfish and sea turtles. This abundance also draws in migrating schools of bluefin tuna, blue sharks, and passing pods of highly endangered North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales.

National Geographic Photography Fellow Brian Skerry, a New England native, has scuba-dived all over the world, but he says he’s never seen a kelp forest as spectacular as the one at Cashes Ledges. On his first dive there, as he approached the kelp forest’s canopy, he thought it was the ocean floor because it was so thick, but then after breaking through the 15- to 20-foot tall canopy, he was struck by the kelp’s variations in color and the abundant wildlife that call the kelp forest home.

“It’s a very special place unlike anything I’ve seen,” Skerry said, “and I’ve seen some tremendous things around the world working with National Geographic magazine for 18 years. To see something like this in the Gulf of Maine in New England was pretty special, and pretty incredible, and spoke to me of the need to protect it because this is one of the very last jewels, and if we are not careful, we will lose it.”

Most people in New England are familiar with the plight of the cod. Much of New England’s economy was built on cod fishing, and now the species has been so overfished that the population has totally collapsed in New England’s coastal waters. That’s not the case at Cashe Ledges.

“I was struck by the big schools of fish, big schools of both pollock and cod, which has mostly been extirpated from New England waters,” Skerry said.  “This is one place in New England that still has great habitat and produces lots of fish.”

Coral Canyon and Seamounts

Located about 150 miles southeast of Cape Code, the Coral Canyon and Seamounts Area has chasms deeper than the Grand Canyon and mountains higher than any east of the Rockies. It also teems with ocean wildlife — including tuna, sharks, seabirds, and endangered sperm and right whales. This area is alive with vivid corals of otherworldly beauty — some the size of small trees that take centuries to grow. These coral communities form the foundation of deep-sea ecosystems, providing food, spawning habitat, and shelter for a wide array of fish and invertebrate species.

Skerry has not been able to dive Coral Canyon and Seamounts because it’s so deep that it takes a deep-sea submersible to access, but he has talked with several oceanographers who have been there and studied their findings.

He said they describe the area as something out of a Dr. Seuss book. “From my conversations with researchers, the area is almost like china shops, with fragile collections of corals, and all these swirly animals and things growing from the bottom or chandelier-like sponges and corals hanging from ledges.”

The threat

Despite some temporary safeguards that are currently in place, these special places are at risk. There is increasing pressure to open New England’s oceans to a wide range of destructive activities that include drilling for fossil fuels, deep-sea mining, and industrial-scale fishing operations. Currently, bottom trawling — also known as ocean strip mining — is not allowed in these areas, but there is immense pressure to open them up to this very destructive fishing practice.

“Some of these organisms would be very easily destroyed,” Skerry said. “If you ran a hand past them some would begin to disintegrate and fall apart. God forbid a deep sea trawler goes through there. If it did, it would take generations to come back, if it ever came back.”

Evidence suggests that warming waters are already altering the health, distribution, and spawning patterns of many marine species along New England’s coast. Ocean acidification threatens to harm shell-building organisms and weaken the plankton that support the marine food web.

Scientists increasingly find evidence that marine protected areas will be vital for our oceans and their living resources to withstand increasing stressors in the future, including exploitation, global warming, and acidification. Marine protected areas are also important for replenishing fish stocks, which in turn helps local economies.

These places are deep and dark, and are not on people’s radar as much as land-based places and habitats,” Skerry said. “But when you consider how important the ocean is to the human existence, and when you consider that only 1 percent of the earth’s oceans are protected, it’s not an irrational argument to argue for protecting some of most special marine places, which could easily be destroyed and gone forever.”

Protect the best

Establishing permanent habitat protections for New England’s marine life is more important than ever. Thankfully, the Obama administration is now considering a proposal to designate one or both of these ocean areas as a marine monuments.

So far, approximately 180,000 people have spoken out in support of protecting the ecologically-important areas off the New England Coast. On Sept 2, more than 600 people came to the New England Aquarium in Boston to hear Skerry and marine biologists talk about the imminent opportunity we have to protect these areas. Then, on Sept 15, the Obama administration held a town hall meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, to hear directly from the public.

There is precedence for the president’s use of executive proclamation to create marine monuments. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the president is authorized to reserve lands and waters of the United States as national monuments. President George W. Bush created four marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, protecting 350,000 square miles of ocean, and President Obama expanded one of those monuments, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, to more than 490,000 square miles. The proposed monuments in the Atlantic would likely be somewhere around only 5,000 square miles.

America’s territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean currently have no marine monuments, but with your help, that could soon change. We have a critical opportunity to win historic protections for ocean areas off the New England coast that host a wide diversity of both ecologically- and economically-important marine life. Please add your voice to protect our ocean treasures.