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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Why for the love of river herring I went to frigid Plymouth for a sea herring meeting

On Tuesday, February 7,  when wind driven snow slashed across the bay, in Plymouth the fate of a small silver fish and a fishery was being decided at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council’s Herring Committee.

The room was packed.  The council was deep into Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan. More than the aisle between the rows of chairs separated the audience. Overflowing out into the hallway were herring fishermen.  On the other side, were charter boat operators, striped bass and bluefish fishermen, anglers, watershed groups, and conservationists.

I was of the latter group and saw the problem as recognized by Amendment 1: “significant damage to a keystone species like herring could result in long-term and possibly irreversible damage to many other components of the…ecosystem.” The keystone species of great importance to me are the river herring (bluebacks and alewives). So why had I traveled far for a sea herring (different species) meeting on the icy shores of Plymouth harbor?

Coastal communities have improved river conditions for alewives, blueback herring, and shad since 1976 when fishery regulations were first passed. Watershed associations worked with state and federal agencies. Dams were removed; fish ladders, pools and ripple areas built, and shade trees planted. $8 billion has been spent by government improving river conditions for herring. Often, private investments have matched government spending.  Anglers and others have invested in the game fish that forage on herring.

Yet, despite all the efforts to restore river herring, there is mounting evidence that blueback herring populations may have dwindled to threatened status.

And then the river herring go to sea. Alewives and blueback herring are thought to spend up to seven years at sea schooling with other bait fishing including sea herring in the Atlantic Ocean. Much research has been done on the make-up of herring schools in the Gulf of Maine. Researchers have identified seasonal hotspots for where river herring co-mingle with Atlantic herring and these places are now in the regulations although they offer no protections. There are a number of small businesses that rely on adequate herring in the water, rather than harvested out of the water.  These user groups include the whale watch industry that rely on seeing whales and seabirds feed on forage fish.  My concern is for alewives, blueback herring and shads in collision with the North Atlantic herring fishery.  On the backs of Atlantic herring rides the fourth largest fishery, by weight, in the world.1

The biggest fishing ships in New England waters are the “mid-water trawling” vessels that reach 160 feet in length. They set massive nets six stories high. One set of the trawl can haul in 800,000 pounds of fish. The problem is a matter of scale where one misplaced trawl could destroy the entire population of one river’s herring. All the millions spent on that river’s herring could be for naught when a herring population does not return because they have been pulled from the ocean, a most final trawl.

Unfortunately, the fishery amendment only offers alternatives that prohibit mid-water trawlers from fishing from 6 to 50 nautical miles from shore.  Trawlers with different gear types, such as large bottom trawlers, also catch a ton of river herring that they dump at sea.  This was a concern last year when small mesh bottom trawlers nearly 150 feet in length hoovered inside of Narraganset Bay. Significant biological and ecological impacts can be caused by intense fishing.  Associated marine life may be harmed, particularly predator fish and marine mammals that must leave the area to find food and other animals such as river herring that are caught as bycatch.

I called on the fishery council to take the precautionary approach in amending the herring plan, to support year-round closures to mid-water trawlers extending 50 miles from shore. This is the only alternative under consideration that protects all identified river herring hotspots.  Don’t overfish our silver darlings!

I invite  you to take a moment to write a comment as to why sending sea herring fishing boats at least 50 miles offshore when using mid-water trawling gear.  Sea herring may be fished inshore using different gear.  The Council needs testimonies of how individuals other than sea-herring fishermen are linked to this particular fishery.  The more specific you can be, the more weight your voice will carry.   Click here to my letter to the Herring Committee, or paste in this link:

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.


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