Why It’s Important to Save Our Seas’ Pristine Places
There’s growing evidence that preserving precious areas not only stops overfishing, it can lessen the impacts of climate change.
Learn more about ocean life in Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures, premiering Sunday, January 15 at 7/6c on National Geographic.
One hundred miles northeast of Boston Harbor, a half dozen endangered sei whales lunge and roll, sleek white bellies flashing in the gray North Atlantic. At the top of each lunge, they throw open tremendous, beaklike maws to strain masses of tiny copepods from the water, which gushes down the sides of their pleated throats. Off the port side of the Plan b, an expedition ship operated by philanthropist Ted Waitt, a school of herring chases the same crustaceans, roiling the surface. Meanwhile, on a rocky ledge 50 feet below, scientists from the ship watch pollacks, cod, and cunners feed among long ribbons of golden kelp.
Cashes Ledge is the highest undersea mountain in the Gulf of Maine—and a remarkable movable feast. As the tides wash over its granite ridges and flat-topped banks, they drive internal waves of warm surface water laden with plankton into the depths. The down-welling waves allow groundfish on the bottom to eat as lustily as fish in the middle of the water and whales, herring, and seabirds at the surface. Tides and topography have conspired here to preserve a vestige of the riches that once defined the Gulf of Maine, until fishing depleted them.
“Cashes is essentially a time machine to the coastal New England of 400 years ago,” says Jon Witman, a trim-bearded Brown University marine ecologist who has studied the hot spot for more than three decades. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, calls Cashes “the Yellowstone of the North Atlantic”—an American treasure worth saving, even if we can’t go visit in an RV.
As the oceans suffer from overfishing, pollution, and the mounting impacts of climate change, Earle is part of an effort by marine scientists and conservationists to set aside some of the last pristine places in America’s seas. From Cashes in New England to the cold-water coral forests in the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the Cortes and Tanner Banks off San Diego, these advocates envision a chain of U.S. marine sanctuaries linked to a global network large enough to save and restore the oceans.
Since Theodore Roosevelt’s time, the U.S. has set aside more than 1,200 marine protected areas. They cover a quarter of all U.S. seas. But they aren’t halting the rapid decline of marine life, says Robin Kundis Craig, a University of Utah law professor and ocean specialist. In the vast majority of protected waters, at least some fishing or other resource extraction is allowed. “Are we more interested in preserving our marine resources, or are we more interested in exploiting them?” Craig asks. “We really haven’t settled this question.”
Late last summer President Barack Obama tried to settle it in two places, using his authority under the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to protect public areas that are historically or scientifically significant. First he quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in northwestern Hawaii, to more than half a million square miles. Only recreational or subsistence fishing is allowed in the monument. It’s a sanctuary for endangered blue whales and monk seals; apex predators such as tuna and sharks; and some of the world’s northernmost and healthiest coral reefs, which are among the most likely to survive global warming.
Three weeks later, Obama also created the first marine monument off the U.S. East Coast, the 4,913-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod. Conservationists had proposed a much larger monument. And they had argued strongly that Cashes Ledge should be protected too. But the fishing industry opposed them on both counts. After Donald Trump’s election as president, some industry spokesmen suggested that even the areas Obama did designate might be in play again. While no president has ever revoked a monument designation, the struggle to protect special places in the ocean—and the ocean as a whole—has clearly entered an urgent phase.
It was hard enough, in the 1870s, for Americans to buy into protecting “the bizarre and beautiful features of Yellowstone,” writes the park ranger turned author Jordan Fisher Smith. People simply didn’t believe the fantastical stories from beyond the frontier of gold canyons, prismatic springs, and erupting hot geysers. The photographs of William Henry Jackson and the paintings of Thomas Moran helped make the case. Congress established the park in 1872, ensuring that America would someday be defined, as Century magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson believed, as much by the landscapes it saved as by the infrastructure it built.
But persuading the public and politicians to save great seascapes presents a special challenge: While they belong to all Americans, just like parks on land, few people will ever see them in person. We can hike into the Grand Canyon, but it takes a submarine to visit the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, along and beyond the edge of the continental shelf. Last year more than four million people visited Yellowstone, and some of them walked right up to the bison (a bad idea). But most Americans will never swim with a sei whale on Cashes other than vicariously, through the images captured by scientists and National Geographic photographers.
To top it off, one of the urgent reasons to protect strategic places in the sea is invisible too. Climate change has begun to compound the pollution and overfishing that have wiped out an estimated half of all commercial fish since 1970. The oceans are absorbing most of the heat caused by our carbon emissions and 30 percent of the carbon dioxide itself. Sea surface temperatures are at record highs. The water has become 30 percent more acidic since the industrial revolution.
Those changes may be invisible, but increasingly, the effects are not. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other ocean region on Earth—and on Machias Seal Island, a popular destination for bird-watching tours, puffin chicks are starving to death by the hundreds, as their normal prey, hake and herring, avoid the tepid shallows. In southeast Florida the higher ocean temperatures have boosted the toxic algae blooms that emptied beaches and hotels last summer. And around the world, many of the largest, most colorful coral gardens have gone tombstone gray. The worst coral bleaching on record was triggered in 2014 by ocean warming caused by greenhouse gases, says C. Mark Eakin, coral reef watch coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and then exacerbated in 2015 by El Niño.
a park bigger than texas
President George W. Bush created the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006, protecting the uninhabited northwestern islands of Hawaii and the sea around them. Last fall President Barack Obama quadrupled the monument’s size, pushing its boundary out to the 200-mile limit of U.S. waters. A few days later, off Midway Islands, he went snorkeling there. Here are eight of the 7,000 or so species he might have encountered in one of Earth’s largest protected areas on land or sea. Many fishermen have opposed the use of the Antiquities Act to designate marine monuments, but conservationists and marine scientists see it as an important means of conserving the last great places in America’s seas.
Yet the ocean is still home to treasure troves of biodiversity, and evidence is mounting that protecting such significant local areas builds resilience to climate change—and can even help regenerate what has been lost. Some of the best proof is found in a national monument preserved half a century ago by President John F. Kennedy.
Located in the U.S. Virgin Islands just off St. Croix, Buck Island rises from the Caribbean in twin green hills fringed with coral pink sand. An overlook on the 176-acre island opens onto a sweeping vista of a blue-mosaic sea—and of the underwater wonder that moved President Kennedy to create Buck Island Reef National Monument in 1961. The reefs arc around the island like a necklace, their dark form easily visible between the turquoise shallows and the cobalt depths beyond.
Kennedy’s focus had been to create the world’s first underwater trail, where anyone might enjoy what he called “one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea.” But his 880-acre monument also included a 259-acre “no-take” area, unprecedented at the time. Buck Island was then among the most varied fisheries in the Caribbean, with a robust population of Nassau groupers. The no-take area proved too small, however. Through the 1990s, fish stocks around the island were decimated by hundreds of traps and nets. Eventually President Bill Clinton stepped in, expanding the monument to 19,015 acres.
Along with the loss of the fishery, Buck Island’s reefs have been subjected to an array of other assaults. In the 1970s and ’80s a deadly bout of white-band disease struck the elkhorn corals, the main reefbuilders, as central to the monument’s identity as Joshua trees are to their namesake park in southern California. All but 5 percent of the elkhorns succumbed, leaving coral researchers feeling as if they were on deathwatch. “I was a coroner at that point,” says Robert Steneck, a University of Maine oceanographer who has studied Buck Island since the early 1970s.
In 1989 Hurricane Hugo lashed Buck Island with 25-foot waves and 150-mile-an-hour winds, destroying part of the southern reef and flinging the surviving portion 90 feet landward. For more than a decade after the hurricane, the displaced reef groaned and creaked like a lost soul. Finally it attached to its new bottom and quieted down. Then in 2005, just as new elkhorns had begun to grow, a spike in ocean temperatures bleached corals in parts of the eastern Caribbean—including 80 percent of Buck Island’s regrown elkhorns.
When Steneck returned to Buck Island in 2014, during an overall assessment of the reefs of the eastern Caribbean, his expectations after being away for a decade were grim. Indeed, along the northern side, enormous coral haystacks were still lifeless; diving among them was like swimming through a petrified forest. But on the southern side, Steneck got a big surprise: gorgeous young elkhorns, the healthiest he encountered among all 52 sites in his 15-island study. Living coral covered 30 percent of the southern reef, compared with an average of 18.5 percent for the greater eastern Caribbean. At Buck Island, Steneck found, large numbers of parrotfish, blue tangs, and other herbivorous fish were gobbling the algae and seaweed that can choke coral growth. And so coral cover had increased.
Parrotfish are popular eating on St. Croix; the Saturday market is full of their vivid colors. But after Clinton’s expansion of the monument, managers banned all fishing—with pot, net, line, or spear—within the new limits. It was a hugely controversial decision, but one that many local fishermen now support, as Buck Island’s reefs show clear signs of coming back.
While fish stocks haven’t rebounded to historic levels—groupers in particular are still so rare that in six years one study counted only three of them—the fish on Buck Island’s south reef today are among the most abundant and biggest in the region, according to coral reef ecologist Peter Mumby of the University of Queensland in Australia. His research, like Steneck’s, concludes that abundant fish have helped the reef recover from bleaching and disease.
“Buck Island offers hope for Caribbean reefs to be able to keep building through the end of the century—if we are very optimistic about reducing climate emissions and we combine that with strong local management of fishing and pollutants,” Mumby says. “If we can manage to do both those things, our grandchildren can very well be enjoying these reefs.”
The monument also benefits animals that range far outside its boundaries. In Buck Island’s lagoon in summertime, it’s impossible not to spot the head of a foraging green turtle popping up from the sea grass beds, or even two heads—a mating pair. The reef is also one of the few protected feeding grounds for critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles, which feast on zoanthids, the fleshy polyps that colonize healthy corals. Two other vulnerable turtle species, loggerheads and leatherbacks, nest on Buck Island’s protected beaches, along with the green turtles and hawksbills. Just as Kennedy imagined, visitors can still motor out to Buck Island, picnic on its beaches, and snorkel past boulder-size brain coral on the underwater trail. What they can’t do is fish, anchor in the lagoon, or camp on the island.
treasure of the Deep atlantic
These are some of the Seussian creatures that live in and around the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, created last fall by President Barack Obama. The monument protects three deep canyons cut into the continental shelf about 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, as well as a chain of extinct volcanoes that lies beyond the shelf in thousands of feet of water. The first marine national monument off the U.S. East Coast, it’s different in a key way from parks on land: You’d need a submarine to go there.
Superintendent Joel A. Tutein was a 10-year-old boy watching from a boat when Washington dignitaries came to the island in 1962 and donned swimsuits and dive masks for the underwater dedication. He has watched various marine-protection efforts for half a century too—none more wrenching than the shutdown of the island’s fishery. But in the nearly 14 years since, the community has rallied around Buck Island in ways “that pull people together instead of pulling them apart,” Tutein says. Ecotourism has become an important business: Buck Island attracts around 50,000 visitors a year.
Can marine parks like Buck Island help the larger ocean recover? Consider Pulley Ridge in the Gulf of Mexico, the deepest light-dependent coral reef in the continental U.S., and another place conservationists would dearly love to see designated a marine monument. Scientists believe that fish larvae born on Pulley Ridge are carried by currents around Florida’s southern coast to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where they replenish the stocks of threatened fish. If Pulley Ridge were protected, the Keys would benefit too.
At Buck Island scientists are researching the elkhorns’ surprising resilience, with a view to transplanting coral colonies to climate-bleached reefs elsewhere. “These biological assets are the sources for us when we get smarter,” says Zandy Hillis-Starr, chief of resource management there. If wildlife managers can help wolves and bison resurge in Yellowstone, she says, they can help sharks and groupers rebound in the sea.
Maybe they can even help cod. Back aboard the Plan b, marine biologist Witman is checking his GoPro footage from Cashes Ledge. In the Gulf of Maine today, the cod stock is estimated to be less than one percent of what it was in colonial times, in spite of decades of catch limits. Witman watches abundant cunners and fat pollacks sway to and fro with the waves and the kelp. For every 10 minutes of footage, he sees two or three cod swimming through. It doesn’t sound impressive—but it’s more than 30 times what he’d see elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine. And it makes setting aside a place where the fish can never be caught sound like a pretty sensible idea.