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Philip Warburg and Priscilla Brooks

Stellwagen Bank's unmet mission

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Philip Warburg and Priscilla Brooks
May 16, 2008

LOCATED JUST 25 miles off the coast of Massachusetts and covering 842 square miles, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary hosts some of the nation's most precious natural resources. It is also a sad example of how poorly we steward New England's critical ocean wildlife and habitat for future generations. Though decades of scientific studies have shown that Stellwagen's ocean ecosystem is in serious decline, a new draft management plan released in early May falls far short on solutions for recovery of this special place.

Distressed ocean waters off the Hawaii, California, and Florida coasts are protected by marine sanctuaries that include no-take zones to protect against damaging commercial fishing practices and other harmful human activity. Not so at Stellwagen Bank. Despite its ecological importance and threatened state, Stellwagen Bank remains a marine sanctuary in name only.

Renowned for its abundance of wildlife and unique underwater habitat, Stellwagen Bank's waters are home to 575 known species, including endangered humpback and northern right whales, sea turtles, and smaller animals such as sponges, sea anenomes, and corals. Rocky outcroppings support the fabled Atlantic cod and the lesser known but endangered Atlantic wolffish. Created in 1992, the sanctuary aspires to protect these species and the habitats on which they depend.

So why have we turned a blind eye to the core mission of the sanctuary - to protect critical marine species and ecosystems for future generations - by failing to adopt meaningful protections from harmful human activities?

Stellwagen Bank's draft management plan, released in early May, is notable for what it says as well as what it does not say. The National Marine Sanctuary Program and the scientists who worked on the plan deserve credit for telling the truth: The sanctuary is in grave danger. Fishing has removed most of the largest, oldest, most biologically productive fish species, and every square foot of the sanctuary seafloor has been disturbed by commercial fishing gear. Heavy bottom trawling gear has reshaped underwater habitats by literally plowing them over.

There is an equally disturbing waste of fish: About 23 percent of the total commercial fish catch is dumped back, dead, into the ocean as "bycatch." So many tons of herring are removed each year that the fish's essential role as a food source for whales is at risk. Whales are also disturbed by the explosive growth of the region's whale-watching industry, and are often killed and injured by passing cargo ships or by becoming entangled in fishing gear. Harmful algal blooms, invasions of exotic species, and degraded water quality from coastal development further threaten the sanctuary's marine life.

For these reasons, we must challenge what the draft management plan does not say: It fails to offer any substantive or immediate solutions for restoring this magnificent natural heritage site. Stellwagen Bank needs and deserves real protection now - protection that will restore and safeguard fish, whales, and other wildlife that support a healthy ocean. To that end the sanctuary must:

  • Manage all commercial and recreational activities inside the sanctuary.

  • Immediately identify and protect the most vulnerable habitats from harmful bottom trawling and other damaging human activity.

  • Better manage shipping, fishing, and whale-watch boats to stop endangered whales from being disturbed, entangled, or killed while they try to feed and raise their young.

  • Develop an open and honest dialogue with fishermen, whale-watch operators and other users about how we can all work together to manage the sanctuary for future growth and ecological abundance.

    For hundreds of years, New England's ocean waters have sustained local communities and economies. But all that human activity has taken its toll. It is time for New England to identify and protect the most treasured parts of our ocean, and Stellwagen Bank is a good place to start. How we choose to protect this special treasure will say a lot about how we much we value the health of our ocean wildlife and critical underwater habitats.

    Philip Warburg is president of the Conservation Law Foundation. Priscilla Brooks is director of the Foundation's ocean conservation program.

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