NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries recently issued its 2020 Condition Report for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This is the first major step in a two- to three-year long process to review and update the Sanctuary’s management plan. A review of the plan occurs every five years as required by the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and a new management plan is released approximately every ten years.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1992 because of its unique natural characteristics and its economic value to New England, including the region’s fisheries. Located off the coast of Massachusetts, Stellwagen Bank is a hotspot for Atlantic cod. It also contains several foundational forage species such as Calanus copepods, Atlantic herring, and sand lance. These species are important prey for cod and for several depleted or endangered species in the region – including the North Atlantic right whale.

The purpose of the condition report is to assess the existing state of natural and economic resources in the area, to determine the driving pressures on those resources, and to analyze whether the resources are improving or worsening.

Here are some key takeaways from the condition report:

  • Atlantic cod is in crisis. Atlantic cod is considered a “focal species” in the Sanctuary given its cultural value, historical importance in the Gulf of Maine, and continuing importance in New England’s groundfish fishery. However, Atlantic cod is overfished and subject to overfishing, and its hyper-aggregation in Stellwagen Bank increases its vulnerability to fishing pressure. Nevertheless, cod remains the most sought-after stock inside the Sanctuary. The report considers Atlantic cod to be in “poor and worsening” condition.
  • Marine mammals – including several endangered species – face numerous threats. From ship strikes to entanglement in fishing gear to ambient noise as much as 20 decibels higher than historical levels, marine mammals face significant threats inside of Stellwagen Bank. Training programs for fishermen and recreational boaters, research on minimizing ambient noise, and the installation of listening devices to determine the location of marine mammals in the Sanctuary have mitigated these risks to some extent. However, the risk remains for endangered North Atlantic right whales and the humpback whales in the region. The report considers these species to be in poor condition with right whales’ condition listed as worsening.
  • Climate change is a threat. The waters in the Gulf of Maine are among the fastest warming in the global ocean. Although more research is needed to determine exactly what impact this warming will have on the region’s natural resources, the report ties climate change to decreased prey abundance, economic impacts on commercial fisheries, and an increased risk of toxic algal blooms.
  • Strong forage fish populations are vital. The aggregation of species like Atlantic cod and marine mammals in the Sanctuary is closely tied to the abundance of sand lance and Atlantic herring. These forage fish species are essential for the continued survival and eventual rebuilding of Atlantic cod populations. However, they also experience the impacts of climate change and overfishing, causing ripple effects throughout Stellwagen Bank and the broader Gulf of Maine ecosystem.
  • Stellwagen Bank is a hotspot for vital research. The Sanctuary is at the forefront of research on humpback and fin whales and on the impacts of increased noise on marine species. Stellwagen Bank is also home to a Designated Habitat Research Area that provides opportunities for studies on habitat use and recovery. However, the designation of the Research Area is set to expire in 2021.

The value of the Stellwagen Bank region to the Gulf of Maine ecosystem cannot be overstated. To date, however, Stellwagen has been a sanctuary only in name. It is essential to expand protections for the species that call it home, including the creation of a fully protected research reserve free from human activity, to preserve its vital resources for generations to come.