Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is one of the most biologically diverse and productive areas in the Gulf of Maine. It is home to more than 575 marine species, including the iconic humpback and North Atlantic right whales and fabled fishes such as cod, flounder, and haddock. Located off the coast of Massachusetts, Stellwagen is a federally protected area because of its outstanding ecological value. Sadly, it is protected in name only.
Scientists studying the sanctuary have found significant declines in its health, particularly in habitat quality, maritime heritage, and impacts from humans. These declines resulted from threats to the sanctuary’s habitats and species, including climate change, commercial and recreational fishing, vessel strikes on whales, and increasing noise levels that interrupt behavior and communication of many marine species. In addition, fishing gear impacts nearly every historical shipwreck in the sanctuary, reducing their archaeological, scientific, and educational value.
This gap between action and need comes as we’re witnessing the impacts of a changing climate, including historic floods in California, extreme heat in the Southwest, and deadly wildfires in Hawaii.
In our own backyard, the Gulf of Maine, where Stellwagen Bank sits, is warming faster than 97 percent of the world ocean. It is ground zero for climate change impacts, rivalled only by the mass coral die-off this year in its sister sanctuary in the Florida Keys.
If effectively managed, marine protected areas like Stellwagen Bank can offer sanctuary to species, including those targeted by fisheries. Addressing climate change requires international action, the more local impacts eating away at the Stellwagen Bank’s health and resilience can be greatly reduced if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has the courage to act now.
NOAA missed a critical opportunity to do just that in its most recent management plan.
Every five years, NOAA must produce a management plan to address threats to the sanctuary and ensure that uses are compatible with protection. Recently, it released the first new plan in 13 years. Despite this prolonged delay — a sign of the inadequate financial and staff support provided to NOAA by Congress — the new plan fails to address documented and long-standing threats and to identify measurable actions to reverse this decline
Throughout the management plan for Stellwagen Bank, NOAA proposes to “study,” “survey,” “monitor,” “provide guidance,” etc., for threats to sanctuary resources despite a clear imperative to act now based on already existing science. Many management actions are voluntary, and there are no consequences planned if voluntary measures do not work.
It’s not too late for NOAA to protect Stellwagen Bank. First, NOAA needs to work immediately with the New England Fishery Management Council and with much greater determination on three critical issues: seabed habitat; marine wildlife; and fish, such as sand lance, mackerel, and herrings, which are critical forage for whales and other large predators.
Regarding seabed habitat, NOAA should insist that trawl and dredge fishing gear that can harm wildlife and historic shipwrecks have no place on Stellwagen Bank. On marine wildlife, whales need much greater protection — especially the north Atlantic right whale that is threatened by ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement. Fishing for Atlantic cod should be restricted within the sanctuary; Stellwagen Bank is one of the last places in the region where they feed, grow, and reproduce in some abundance. Prohibiting fishing for cod in this relatively small area would help ensure a future for this all-important fish and provide cod a chance to better adapt to climate change. Second, NOAA should work with the council to manage fish in the sanctuary as wildlife and not just commodities.
NOAA should protect foundational species like sand lance and herrings to the benefit of all other wildlife, as well as people. NOAA needs to work with the Coast Guard to institute a 10-knot speed limit within the sanctuary to reduce ship strikes and anthropogenic noise that harms wildlife, especially whales. NOAA should designate wildlife replenishment zones that are off limits to all extractive activities and that serve as a “listening post” into the health of the ocean in the midst of a changing climate.
National Marine Sanctuaries like Stellwagen Bank must have the authority to designate area management measures besides those instituted for fishery purposes, such as the creation of low-impact zones to grow into reference areas. This is an essential step in guiding the management of human activities in the Sanctuary, particularly with regard to the impacts of climate change.
NOAA has a responsibility to protect wildlife and habitat and prevent harmful uses to ensure the integrity of the Sanctuary for future generations. NOAA failed to fulfill its legal obligations with the new sanctuary management plan, but it is not too late to act — to design appropriate actions, and then steward the sanctuary by implementing and enforcing them.
Les Kaufman is a professor of biology at Boston University.