Published on August 25, 2015

Protecting Fragile Offshore Ocean Habitats

Ocean floor photo by Brian Skerry

Mass Audubon supports the permanent protection of New England’s offshore treasures: Cashes Ledge and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area. Protecting these special ocean places from current and future threats will help ensure the health and biodiversity of the region’s ocean waters for generations to come.

Protection will also benefit the vibrant ocean wildlife and diverse fisheries that are so important to New England’s thriving marine economy and rich cultural heritage.

Cashes Ledge

The Gulf of Maine’s Cashes Ledge is home to an underwater mountain range whose surrounding peaks, ridges, basins, and plains as far west as Fippennies Ledge serve as critical habitat for an astonishing array of ocean wildlife. The highest peak in the range, known as Ammen Rock, is home to the deepest and largest cold-water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard.

The dynamic environment created by Cashes Ledge attracts ocean wildlife from both the coast of New England and far offshore. The diverse habitats serve as refuge for iconic New England fish such as cod and halibut and rare species like the Atlantic wolffish, helping to conserve and replenish populations of these and other ocean species.

Migrating schools of bluefin tuna, sea turtles, blue and basking sharks, passing pods of highly endangered North Atlantic right whales, and humpback whales, and foraging pelagic seabirds are common at Cashes Ledge. Its rugged features and long-term protection from bottom trawling and dredging lead many scientists to believe that Cashes Ledge represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem, historically one of the richest and most diverse in the world.

New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area is composed of five undersea canyons off the southern New England coast and four nearby seamounts—the only ones in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean, which together support a remarkable richness and diversity of ocean life.

The seamounts (Bear, Mytilus, Physalia, and Retriever) and the submarine canyons (Oceanographer, Lydonia, Gilbert, Nygren, and Heezen) are home to diverse and fragile habitats, including abundant and vivid deep sea corals of otherworldly beauty—some the size of small trees and taking centuries to grow. The cold-water coral communities form the foundation of a deep-sea ecosystem, providing food, spawning habitat, and shelter for a diverse range of fish and invertebrate species.

The dynamic ocean environment of the canyons and seamounts attracts an array of ocean wildlife, including tuna and billfish, sea turtles, seabirds, and what may be the highest diversity of cetaceans in the North Atlantic. A number of these species are iconic for the region, such as sperm whales and North Atlantic right whales.

Because of the area’s remote location, depth, and rugged character, it is remarkably pristine and remains a vital frontier for scientific discovery, with research expeditions continuing to yield new and rare species, new understandings about ecological relationships, and renewed appreciation of the uniqueness of these deep-sea ecosystems.

Fragile Habitats at Risk

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area and Cashes Ledge are striking examples of what a healthy ocean should look like—a living seabed covered in rare and vibrant cold-water corals or a thriving kelp forest, schools of iconic New England fish swimming above, and regular visits by a variety of whales, seabirds, sea turtles, and large predatory fish including sharks, tuna, and swordfish. Their ecological integrity makes them important to the broader regional ecosystem, helps them to contribute to the regional ocean economy, and makes them living laboratories for scientists hoping to learn about the health and function of New England’s oceans. The species that they support are critical for New England’s vibrant whale watching, recreational fishing, and seabird viewing industries.  

A combination of use restrictions and natural protective features has kept these special ocean places remarkably free from human disturbance to date. But the push to exploit more and more places puts these fragile habitats at risk. Permanent and holistic protection of these offshore marine jewels from all commercial extractive activity will preserve them as thriving biodiversity hot spots and living marine laboratories. Such protection can also build resilience against the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.

America has a long tradition of protecting our remarkable natural heritage and biological bounty. In contrast to our public lands and the Pacific Ocean, where very large areas have been protected, no areas fully protected from commercial extraction exist in the U.S. Atlantic. Now is the time to right the balance, and safeguard these marine treasures to avoid irreversible damage to remarkable ecosystems.