Spacious Seas Where a Majesty of Right Whales Roam

In the sky, south of the high table-top escarpment that separated us from where the dead right whale lay, a bright shaft of rainbow light scorched upwards the rose-colored sky.

During the summer of 2017, the tenth right whale known to die in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was found in Cedar Cove, Newfoundland on August 2nd.  The death of this particular whale, one of twelve that died in these waters well north of the Gulf of Maine, would tell us more about what was going on than would any other whale.

Nobody lives in Cedar Cove because it is on the outside of the Bay of Islands facing weather that streams over Labrador and rushes head-long across the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cedar Cove Trail Head Parking Lot is at the end of the road from Corner Brook. Past York Harbor and Lark Harbor, the road ramps up through spruce forests around table-top moors to a place known for the best beach combing in Newfoundland.

On August 2, the day the whale was found, I was on a Dutch tall ship, the bark Europa.  We had anchored the night before in the harbor named for the ship HMS Lark (a 32-gun fifth rate two-decker frigate) that was in this place 250 years ago.

In the morning, the wind was very light from the north. Ideal conditions for setting all 1250 square meters of sail on the 185 foot three masted bark. We pulled out whisker poles and set six stunsails flying. Europa cleared the Bay of Islands and headed south along Newfoundland’s western shore.

To our left, Cedar Cove was a distant notch in the skyline of spruce and rock. Here an expired right whale lay high on a boulder strewn shore.  I did not know this until the next day when fellow crew members from Corner Brook told me what they had heard from family back home.

I was greatly concerned.  A few days earlier I had been on a local whale watch in search of the eight right whales that were summering in the Bay of Islands.  For a couple of hours, we motored outwards in the deep bay from Corner Brook. No sign of right whales was found that day.  We did see humpback and fin whales, and small open boats containing one or two fishermen catching cod with hook and line.

Bay of Islands is Newfoundland’s most important estuary. In this spectacular landscape, the cold waters flow down the Humber River from Deer Lake forming a strong salmon run with grilse, small salmon, and salmon weighing more than 30 pounds. Such a healthy ecosystem is a grand place for right whales and a great pride for the resident people.

This is arguably the finest salmon waters in the Atlantic Ocean.  So, of course, there are right whales in the Bay of Islands.  The question is what took them so long.  The answer is likely, but not necessarily, a combination of changes in the ocean and changes with this population of whales.

Our ignorance of life beneath the waves is astounding. This, despite an abundance of information that is nearly drowning us, along with a stifling amount of opinions washing about.

Right whales are very difficult to see, let alone count. They lack the speed, the wheel and splash, of fin, minke, and humpback whales. With mouth open, they filter out plankton through baleen plates that hang down in the mouth.  At times, with top lip above the water and baleen visible, a clickety-clack sound may be heard of baleen plates hitting one another.

Fast swimming whales have a small fin on top like the feather on the back of an arrow.  It helps them go straight at high speeds.  No dorsal fin on right whales.  Not eating fish, there is nothing hurried about a right whale.

Right whales appear to me as the most majestic of whales. They swim slowly, stately, rising up and settling down.

Outside the Bay of Islands, along the rock-bound coast, life for right whales is not as copacetic. This was not the first right whale to perish close to Bay of Islands.  Just to the north, a right whale was also found dead in Chimney Cove.

A right whale was also found dead in the very Southwest corner of Newfoundland at Cape Ray, fifteen miles west of Port Aux Basques where the Nova Scotia ferry pulls in.

A fourth right whale was found way north, dead on the Western shore south of the River of Ponds.  This whale expired about 275 north of Cape Ray, twice the distance north to Bay of Islands.  All four whales were greatly decomposed. That is, they had died many weeks previously.

The eight right whales observed grazing in the Bay of Islands were individually known. The four dead whales, found on the outer coast, were most definitely not one of the local right whales.  Two of the dead whales had unique callosity markings.  The other two dead whales were too far gone to be individually identified and died long ago, before live whales were seen in Corner Brook.

Elsewhere, eight more right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. North of the Magdalen Islands a badly decomposed right whale was found bobbing on the surface. Two right whale was found north of Prince Edwards Island, once came ashore near Norway. Further West, off New Brunswick, five right whales were found dead.

These places are about as far from Newfoundland as Boston is from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  The Gulf of Maine is about 70,000 square miles and Gulf of St. Lawrence is roughly 91,000.  These are spacious seas where North Atlantic right whales dwell.

The trouble for right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence may be that it drains the Great Lakes. This means much boat traffic and pollution. It could result in more ship strikes and the lessening of fertility from toxic chemicals that bio-accumulate in fat cells passed from mother whales to young.  More nutrients may feed harmful algal blooms to create ocean dead zones.  There is also a large snow crab fishery.

The twelve dead right whales ranged in age from two to at least thirty-seven years old.  Eight males and four females were found.  Nine of the whales had been individually identified and were included in the New England Aquarium Right Whale Catalog.  Three right whales were new to these researchers.

Of the four dead right whales found strewn across Newfoundland’s Western shore, the one found in Cedar Cove looked like an abandoned gray survival suit that had been tossed up on the rocks. It had been dead for so long, was so decomposed, that the bones had slipped out, likely head first, sinking into the deep leaving behind, floating on the surface, blubber and skin.

The Cedar Cove right whale (Whale #11) was a twelve-year-old female. Genetic profiling revealed that this was the same whale as the one found floating dead north of Prince Edward Island. This whale (#5) had gone missing after July 4th. At that time the carcass condition was already moderately decomposed, suggesting death was about a month earlier.  Modeling with currents and prevailing wind conditions, researchers calculated that this whale was much further west, close to the New Brunswick shore, when it was struck by a vessel and killed.

Hindcast reverse trajectories were simulated for eight whales in total.  This includes the Cedar Cove whale. Predicting the drift of dead whales for 14 days prior found most of the trajectories originated on the western side of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, well south of the St. Lawrence seaway boat traffic.

The report ruled out harmful algal blooms and diseases. Ship strikes and fishing entanglements killed the whales. The increase in mortality was attributed to a combination of three factors: increased right whale abundance in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, increased exposure to human-activities, and whale carcasses were more apt to be found due to increased survey efforts.

The finding-more-whales factor was put on steroids by international interest and heightened media coverage. Before this summer, a whale found dead was a big deal to locals and hardly considered newsworthy in the next town or two over. Such occurrences in Newfoundland were of little interest to Prince Edward Island, to New Brunswick, and visa versa.

In 2017, the counting of dead right whales was on.  So much so that in September, a whale watching cruise ship departed Southampton, UK, in hopes of viewing the last of the right whales in Canadian waters.

For the nine right whales known to researchers in Boston, exposure to human-activities did not increase significantly in Canadian waters. Yes, there were likely more right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence than ever before.

There is another human-whale interaction that should also be factored in, one that should not repeat in subsequent years. It is possible the high whale mortality in 2017 is not part of a downward spiral for the right whale population of changing ocean conditions. These tragedies are very specific, and may be more an episode, an anomaly, than part of a trend.

Five right whales were entangled in snow crab fishing gear off of Shippagan, New Brunswick.  The Campobello Whale Rescue Team in the Bay of Fundy answered the call. They were the only ones with the permit, and the will, to rescue entangled right whales in the Canadian Maritimes.

Two entangled whales were freed of gear.  On July 10, the rescue boat approached the third whale. Joe Howlett cut free one of the lines with a long spear-like handle with a knife on the end. Howlett hooked under the second line. Cut free of entanglement, the whale dropped under the boat.  The whale’s massive tail came up and came down striking Howlett dead. The whale shook loose the lines and swam off.

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team stopped disentangling right whales.  They had cut free the snow crab gear from three whales, two males ages 6 years and 33 years, and one unknown gender right whale.  A seven-year-old female and fifteen-year-old male were also observed entangled in gear. These whales were left to fend for themselves.

For years the rescue team had called on the Canadian government to fund rescue work freeing whales. To no avail. With the tragic loss of Howlett, right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy were bereft of rescue teams.

Instead of stepping up to fund a rescue vessel in the vicinity of the snow-crab fishery to complement the privately-funded Campobello Whale Rescue Team in the Bay of Fundy, the government suspended right whale rescues and closed the snow crab fishery for the summer.

Extensive necropsies were completed on carcasses of six right whales.  For one whale, decomposition was too advanced for a cause of death to be determined.  For one whale, the cause of death was chronic entanglement.  For the other four whales, blunt trauma was either the suspected or the probable cause of death. These four whales had been struck by the hull of a vessel in waters worked by snow crabbers.

In 2018, no right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  In 2019, nine right whales died.  Two whales were found together on the same day in June off the Acadian Peninsula in northeastern New Brunswick. They seemed not have been entangled with fishing gear.

Three whales were observed swimming with rope entanglements.  One of these whales had been observed in April in the Gulf of Maine trailing a line of rope from underneath its body. These whales were in New Brunswick waters closed to fishing.

The Canadian government is considering putting tracking devices on whales suffering from entanglements.  They are reluctant to take risks freeing whales of lines.

Overall, how are right whales doing sharing seascapes with humans? In 2013, the reported North Atlantic right whale population peaked at 476, having climbed from 291 in the 1990’s. The population appeared to drop in 2014. Today, the right whale population is estimated at about 400. (Canadian government estimates 411.)

In 2015, researchers went farther afield in search of whales.  The first survey of the Gulf of St. Lawrence was held in western portions near Prince Edward Island.  Forty to forty-five right whales were sighted.  The same number was found in 2016.  The fateful summer of 2017, 100 North Atlantic right whales were documented in western reaches of the Gulf.

Indubitably, the Gulf of St. Lawrence has become an important habitat for North Atlantic right whales.  In this magnificent place, there is hope for right whales.

There are compelling indications of even more right whales. Genetic profiling of the right whales calving off of Southeastern US found that, when sampled again in summering areas, only 60% of all known calves were with their mothers.  The remaining 40% of calves were not observed on known summering grounds.

Right whale paternity analysis found fathers of only 45% of known calves have been genetically determined.  Since genetic profiles have been determined for 69% of all photo-identified males, the population of male right whales is likely larger than reported.

For the people of the high granite outcropped shores of Newfoundland as well as those of the lobster-red sandstone ledges of Prince Edward Island, the wonder is what took the right whales so long to rediscover spectacular seascapes resplendent with nutrient rich waters.

The answer may be global warming climate-driven changes to the whale’s ecosystem.  The summer when surprisingly few right whales were observed in the Bay of Fundy, a decrease in their food was also found.  The population of the most abundant zoo plankton organism, a copepod called Calanus finmarchicus, had dropped.  Plankton are organisms that drift with the ocean currents.  So the population decline in the high-fat sesame-sized crustaceans was thought to be due to a shift in the oceans currents. This was most disconcerting because this is the place where whales stoke up, putting down fat reserves, to make it through a low diet winter in clear waters off the coast of Georgia.

Ocean currents are shifting because so much of the planet’s heat energy is prevented from escaping into outer space by greenhouse gasses. 93.4% of the retained energy is going into the ocean.  When water warms, it expands, becomes less dense, causing sea levels to rise and circulation patterns to shift.

The motion in the oceans’ currents is primarily driven by the rising of warm waters and the sinking of dense cold briny waters.  The ocean’s thermohaline circulation is also called meridional overturning circulation.  The direction of ocean currents is caused by the Earth’s rotation, known as the Coriolis effect.

Global warming induced climate change is melting the polar ice cap. Sea ice that once covered two-thirds of the Arctic Ocean, today covers less than one third and is on average shrinking. As a result, there is twice as much open seawater to freeze come October.

Fulmar flies before iceberg in East Greenland. Photo Rob Moir, Ocean River Institute

When sea water freezes, salt is expelled so the water molecules can align in a crystalline structure, ice.  Icebergs float one-eighth above the sea because the water is denser with salt. (Icebergs float level in fresh water.) Salt left behind in the freezing of sea ice makes the adjacent cold water even denser.  Denser water sinks.

With more sea ice formation in the Arctic, more seawater is flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.  Cold, nutrient-rich dense Arctic water slams into warm nutrient poor Atlantic water in the Denmark Strait. There the Arctic water plunges down 11,000 feet in the world’s largest waterfall to form the Greenland midwater current. This water flows south along East Greenland, around Cape Farewell and then north along West Greenland.  In Baffin Bay, the right-hand bearing current turns around, returning to the Labrador Sea to become the Labrador Current.

The Gulf of Maine is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by Browns Bank below Nova Scotia and by Georges Bank above Cape Cod.  The connecting deep water Northeast Passage is only about sixty miles wide.

The amount of Labrador Current water entering the Gulf of Maine varies from year to year, unexpectedly, much like the arrival of hurricanes (too many factors in play to measure and model). The technical terms for the volume of Labrador Current entering the Gulf of Maine are barn door open, barn door closed, and barn door ajar.

When researchers find a warming of water in the deep basins it indicates less Labrador Current water and more Slope Water. When “the barn door is closed” to the Labrador Current, warmer, less-dense Slope Water fills in.

More water flowing out of the Arctic Ocean is in turn driving a stronger flowing Gulf Stream.  This was evident in October 2011, when the Gulf Stream meandered up onto the continental shelf closer to the U.S. than ever recorded.  (A river dissipates excess energy laterally by meandering, much like a train crash sending rail cars in crumpled zig-zag.)

In 2007, the Gulf Stream surfaced in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago on the threshold between the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. This commenced the melt of glaciers on the land. Heat brought to Northern Europe by the Gulf Stream set record high temperatures.  Warm midwater is increasingly flowing back into the Arctic Ocean furthering the summer melt of sea ice. A positive feedback loop is completed.

Surface currants in the Gulf of Maine are no less fickle. Fresh water from off the land tongues and pools on top of briny Shelf Water. The Gulf of Maine is like a layer cake.  Labrador Current water on the bottom; then Slope Water, Shelf Water, and surface water frosting.

Surface waters run deep in the summer due to winter snow melt and spring rains. In winter, surface waters become more diffuse and less distinct.  Summer of 2013 saw such extreme wet and hot weather over the land, that surface water temperatures rose 4 degrees Fahrenheit, a legendary warming that was greater than reports from any other ocean water body. In 2014, surface water temperatures were cooler.

With extreme weather events have come variations in ocean currents. Shifting currents moved out of reach the herring that puffins relied on to feed their chicks. Shifting currents may be why researchers are finding less copepods in the right whale grounds at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.

However, researchers are also finding less phytoplankton, the food of copepods. A factor could also be pollutants.  Likely more herbicides and pesticides are being applied to clear power lines and to manage over-fertilized lawns. (Lawns with quick-release fertilizer have shallow roots, less resilience and have more need for pesticides and herbicides. Lawns without fertilizer put down deeper roots, are more resilient, and put on more foliage capturing more carbon.)

Right whale Photo by Jessica Taylor, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, New England Aquarium

Whether the right whales came to the Gulf of St. Lawrence out of necessity, due to an inconvenience of where the shoals of copepods were, or by choice due to a growing population exceeding its habitat, does not matter.  The Gulf of St. Lawrence provides vast watery realms where whales stoke up on shoals of plankton.  Right whales have expanded their range.  The benefit for us are more opportunities to view magnificent right whales without disturbing them. In the majestic company of right whales, life is better for us all.

Deep Sea Canyon Rangers, Guardians of Ocean Realms

Far out on the Atlantic Ocean, about 160 miles southeast of Nantucket, the morning light revealed that the sea had changed from cold gun metal gray to a deep Mediterranean blue.   Looking out through the pilot house window, I saw a sperm whale. The rectangular black portion above the water reminded me of a railroad box car.  The blowhole was forward on the left side of head, on top just behind the perpendicular descent of the whale’s front. The back was flat and smooth no sign of a backbone, no dorsal fin. The expanse of back turned to knuckles that stepped down the tail disappearing into the water.

This was a very different beast than the whales of whale watching, the humpback, fin and minke whales. Their wheeling behaviors had become familiar. Head breaks the surface, followed by paired blow holes, ridged steeply-sided back followed by dorsal fin and sometimes lifted tail.

The sperm whale was still in the water; waves lapped at its square black brow. There was no exhalation of atomized water droplets rising in a diagonal column to fall clear of the whale. This whale was dead.

I turned around in the pilot house to see the captain stripped down to his shorts standing on one foot while maneuvering the other foot into a wet suit held spread by his two hands. The Captain was also a jeweler with an interest in scrimshaw. He was preparing to put on scuba gear to get some whale teeth.

There I stood, the curator of natural history of a Massachusetts museum who had brought a bit more than a dozen patrons on a three-day cruise off the continental shelf on a sperm whale watch. The dead whale was unexpected. And then, the only one who knew how to operate the boat was about to jump ship to take a quixotic swim to pluck teeth from the largest toothed jawbone in the animal kingdom with what looked to me like a Bowie knife. How could things have gone so wrong?  How could this distant ocean realm be better managed so one would no longer find one out of three whales sighted floating dead?

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From Earth Day to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues

A pub sing is held at the Somerville Armory second Thursdays and fourth Tuesdays.  The rule is any song is welcome as long as it has a chorus that all may join in on.  Last Thursday, the songs ranged from Tom Paxton to songs of courtship and rum.  A woman led us through a rare version of the sea shanty Spanish Ladies.  It had explicit instructions for sailing the English Channel from across the Atlantic.  Here is the chorus.

“We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors,

We’ll range and we’ll roam all on the salt seas,

Until we strike soundings

In the Channel of old England.

From Ushant to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues.

Ushant is a French island off of Brittany, the north-western point of France. Ushant marks the mouth or bottom lip of the English Channel.  The 180-foot light shines brightly; it is the most powerful lighthouse in Europe. The Isles of Scilly are off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, the most southerly and westerly point in the United Kingdom.  The isles look like giant granite dice, coarse-grained with porphyritic crystals of feldspar, tossed from Lizard Point.

Grayhound, a three masted lugger, sails from Brittany past Ushant for the Isles of Scilly with a cargo of French Bordeaux and Muscadet, Bretton coffee and tea, chocolate and Bretton Honey on June 14, 2018. Passage: www.classic-sailing.co.uk

Sailors, having been at sea for months or years, must have belted out this penultimate homeward-bound song as each landmark hove into sight.

“So the first land we made, it is called the Deadman,

Next Rame Head, off Plymouth, Start, Portland, and the Wight,

We sailed by Beachy,

By Fairlight and Dungeness,

And then bore away for the South Foreland light.

The Deadman, or Deadman’s Point, is today known as Dodman Point, the highest headland on the south Cornwall coast. For a weary sailor, this is the first landfall looming out of the horizon.  South Foreland Lighthouse is at the other end of the Channel, beyond Dover, alerting ships to beware of the Goodwin Sands.

A league is three nautical miles. A nautical mile is 1.15 statute miles. From Ushant to Scilly is actually 112 miles or 97 nautical miles or about 32 ½ leagues.  For the sailor longing for home, thirty-five leagues may be more correct due to wind and tides.

Sailors use nautical miles because it is one minute of latitude.  Sixty nautical miles or twenty leagues is one degree of latitude.  Most fists held aloft at arm’s length span ten degrees or two hundred leagues.  Each of four knuckles represent 2.5 degrees.  When the north star appears one knuckle higher in the sky a northward-bound sailor knows fifty leagues has been traveled.  In the Atlantic, when the pole star, around which all others turn, is 49 degrees high, put the rudder hard over to turn the ship to the  right.  Steer due East by the compass in the binnacle.  This course will take one between Ushant at 48.46 N and the Isles of Scilly at 49.56 N.

“Let go your shank painter, Let go your cat stopper, Haul all your c

Setting stunsails on the bark Europa 

lew garnets, let tack and sheet fly.”  This is how a square-rigged ship furls sail; that is, lash them up against the spars.

Man in doorway tending La Jument Lighthouse, Ushant, December 1989. Photo Jean Guichard

Nowadays, with eyes tacked down  we fist cellphones to navigate city blocks and country miles. Channels are on the TV, and leagues play sports. When Earth Day comes around each April 22, most people are mindless to where we’ve come from and clueless to where we are.  We moan about the latest perturbation to our chores of tending house, keeping habitats, and stewarding the planet.

The principles and practices of Earth Day are not kept alive in song.  When we go astray or bump into an obstacle, we wring our hands, blame and curse.  We need to recognize the channel markers and navigational aids for conservation and restoration; get back on course, stay the course, and persevere.  The way forward is slow.  You can not rush a democracy; all must be on board. Our future depends on knowing the right course to take recognizing if we attempt to sail straight into the winds we won’t get there from here.

Earth Day 1970, to quote Barry Commoner, “was irrefutable evidence that the American people understood the environmental threat and wanted action to resolve it.”  That we remember once a year. Commoner was a biologist who upset the applecart of academia by jumping disciplines and going into social science.  With his Baby Tooth Study in the late 1950s, he demonstrated that the presence of Strontium 90 in children’s teeth was a direct result of nuclear fallout. He put it succinctly: “The greatest single cause of environmental contamination of this planet is radioactivity from test explosions of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.”  As the result of speaking irrefutable truth to government, above-ground nuclear testing ceased.

Our work was just beginning. “Environmental pollution is an incurable disease.  It can only be prevented.”  Commoner debated those focused on overpopulation as the source of environmental problems.  He observed that poverty “initiates the rise in population,” not the other way around. Rapid population growth of the developing world is the result of not having adequate living standards.  He postulated that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures.  For example,  child labor using hand tools in Congo cobalt mines to keep rechargeable lithium-ion batteries cheap is wrong on so many levels.

In his 1971 bestselling book The Closing Circle, Commoner introduced the idea of sustainability.  He argued that polluting products should be replaced with natural products.  He believed in technology.  But, above all, he believed that it would take social developments to achieve a natural decrease in both population and environmental damage.

“If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you are looking the wrong way.”

The fog of excess carbon and too much greenhouse gasses has dimmed the light.  The distance is vast that we need travel from the first Earth Day to the other shore of sustainability and no poverty.  Yet, no matter whether you are caring for your car, your home, your place, or your community, there will always be work to do.

We must steadfastly stay the course of compassionate stewardship and not pollute.  Along the way, look up and with fist held high, remember to count the digits as the leagues go by.  If you care to raise  your voice, please join the chorus.  We’ll rant and we’ll roar together in harmony for a healthier planet.

The Deadman or Dodman Point, Cornwall. Photo: megalithic.co.uk

Ocean River Institute display to come down and depart Harvard Square.

Last week, while I was sailing on the tall ship Europa from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, I was informed by email to remove the Ocean River Institute’s exhibit in the display window by the Mt Auburn Street Post Office in Cambridge. When I was hauling on halyards, I was directed to clear away the ducks and ocean images from the streets of Cambridge. I was up to date on monthly payments. However, after many years of occupancy, the last display window contract of eighteen months had expired during the winter. And now someone else is interested in the space and likely had agree to pay more rent per month.

   

The Ocean River Institute display window is a Harvard Square amenity. Inside the post office I over hear Dads saying: “after we finish with all this, then we’ll go see the ducks.” Once I found a woman looking intently at the one of the fish sketches by Dina Chapeau. She was France and wanted to know what we called monkfish so she could order it off a menu. The irony is we were all introduced to monkfish by Julia Child, who discovered it in France. I like the monkfish served at Parsnip on Winthrop.

Watercolors by Harper Dangler illustrate three ecotones, the Atlantic Ocean, Estuary and Coldstream River. At the bottom of the ocean may be seen four habitats, muddy, sandy, gravel and boulder reef. Each ocean floor has its own inhabitants who are identified by Dina’s legend on the right.

For me the most poignant image is up high on the wall. A vibrant and clean Boston Harbor with cat boat, tug boat, tall ship and people lolling about on the harbor walk. Across the bottom of the harbor image is written: Together, we are protecting environments not for self but for all.

When we’ve got a harbor of pride with marvelous animals dwelling within, it should be displayed. Must the amenity on Mt Auburn Street by the Post Office be gone because of a lapsed contract?

Offshore Watchmen on the Frontline under Global Warming Assault

President Obama favored lobstermen before solar-cell industrialists when he protected a 4,900 square mile ocean refuge 150 miles east of Cape Cod.  The Antiquities Act was used to go around a grid-locked Congress to establish the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument.  The designated ocean wildlife refuge features three canyons (Oceanographer, Gilbert, and Lydonia Canyons) incised into the continental shelf on the south side of Georges Bank, and four seamounts (Bear, Physalia, Mytilus, and Retriever) that rise up ten thousand feet off the Atlantic Ocean’s abyssal floor. Permanently protected are seven sea places – essential ocean habitats like no other.

The solar-cell industry has expressed interest in mining these seamounts. Summits of the four volcanic seamounts are more than one thousand feet below the surface, in complete darkness. Seamounts are made of hard basalt rock with a remarkable porosity of 60%. Gnarly with much surface areas, seamounts sponge out of seawater rare earth minerals (cerium, europium, lanthanum, and yttrium) and high tech metals (tellurium, cobalt, bismuth, zirconium, niobium, tungsten, molybdenum, platinum, titanium, and thorium).

High tech metals are refined and combined into alloys. Tellurium combined with bismuth becomes an alloy that is being tested as a next-generation computer chip that is more efficient and immensely faster than existing chips. Tellurium is combined with cadmium into an alloy that is considered the best material for production of multi-terawatt solar-cell electricity using thin-film photovoltaic technology.

Ancient seamounts in the mountains of China are currently being mined. China refuses to export rare earth minerals and high tech metals. Companies must instead manufacture in China. Similar mines could be opened in Californian mountains, where many new jobs would be costlier for industry. Thus the president acted to make sure the wrecking ball of high-tech metal mining will never destroy the unique assemblages of marine life living deep below on Bear, Physalia, Mytilus, and Retriever Seamounts.

The ocean refuge has also been protected from overfishing. Prohibited are trawling and purse seining for Loligo squid, whiting, and mackerel, and dredging for scallops and shellfish.  Out over the seamounts, gill netting and long lining for swordfish, yellow fin and skip jack have been banned.

Unprecedented for a national park or refuge, some people of this seascape may stay and continue to work there. (For them, there will be no mustering of a Mariposa Battalion.) For seven years, lobstermen are permitted to trap lobsters on the ribbon of ocean floor less than 500 meters deep that wraps the northern ends of the three ocean canyons and connects the intervening continental slope waters.

Unable to see beneath the sea’s face, for the most part, there is no more immediate reassurance of a healthy ocean than a working lobster boat. Though the wood pot frames invented by Ebenezer Thorndike in Swampscott (1808) have been replaced by plastic-coated metal, the pursuit of lobsters has not changed over the generations.  These deep water trappers are the undersea canyon rangers. With intimate knowledge of this ocean realm, they are the eyes on the resource. At no public expense, these watchmen serve far offshore on a continental frontline under assault by the effects of Global Warming.

Voyage with the Ocean River Institute, become a savvy guardian of the commons, defender of the wild.   Make a donation and champion social justice for all living beings.

minots-light

Port tack offshore of Minot’s Ledge Light, Scituate, Massachusetts