Skip to content

NOAA Shirks Responsibility for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary as Marine Life Declines

Featured Image: At the close of the day, the sanctuary’s waters and sky field a palette of colors. Photo- Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Stellwagen Bank, nestled in the ocean between Cape Cod’s curled arm and the New England coast, is such an important and iconic part of our coastal ocean that more than 30 years ago its marine life was offered extra protection by being designated a national marine sanctuary. There were high hopes that the populations of cod, forage fish like herring, endangered whales, including the critically endangered northern right whale, that make it home for part of the year, and its very productive waters would be protected from threats like too much fishing.

Instead, Stellwagen has provided little to no protection: its seafloor degraded and plowed up by repeated bottom trawling, populations of cod and forage fish like herring in decline from too much fishing, shipwrecks shrouded in lost fishing nets, climate change rapidly raising water temperatures, and its waters ever noisier and more dangerous from speeding shipping traffic. Stellwagen has become a sanctuary in name only as managers at National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deferred time and time again to special interests of local politicians, fishing groups, and the regional fishery council that manages catches all over New England. The voices supporting marine conservation have been pushed aside. Sanctuary managers and NOAA have punted the clear problems ‘down the road’ repeatedly by calling for more studies and monitoring. In short, the managers at NOAA have refused to take most of the obvious steps to stop the decline. And now they’ve done it again.

Tragically after a three-year public process with plenty of input, NOAA released a sanctuary management plan on August 7th that took none of the steps that its own science and most recent sanctuary condition report acknowledged in 2020 were critical to reversing damage to this unique place and restoring it to health. What’s even more appalling is that NOAA has the responsibility and the power by statute to protect, restore and enhance the marine life and habitat of the sanctuary. In plain language, they have the responsibility and the tools to do a better job, but refuse to do so, instead falling back on more studies and continued monitoring of the declining conditions. The new management plan contains NOT A SINGLE, concrete management action or regulation in the water to improve the health of the sanctuary.

Shrimp swim near anemones on a boulder reef. Photo- Peter Auster/SHRMP/UConn

There is no plan to address the increasing levels of underwater noise that make it hard for resident whales to find food and each other. There is no plan to address the increasing number of whales entangled in fishing gear or whales struck by huge cargo ships. There is no plan to reduce pressure from commercial fishing or bottom trawling to prevent further declines in abundance or protect the last remaining cod aggregations in New England. The area is warming faster than almost any other part of the US’ oceans, but there are no provisions for increasing resilience of its marine life to warming waters. We should not be surprised that the northern right whales who spend part of the year there are in a death spiral, victim to fishing gear entanglement and ship strikes.

Given the opportunity to create an effective management plan to protect marine life in Stellwagen Bank marine sanctuary, not once but twice, NOAA has failed to deliver. In consequence, the quality of habitat and marine resources are very mixed. Some measures of habitat and marine life in the so -called sanctuary are worse off today than two decades ago, others are stable, and a very few are increasing in quality. For example, in the 2020 Condition Report, the impact of human activities (i.e., mostly fishing) on habitat which is the foundation of marine ecosystems, is judged “fair”, meaning “measurable degradation” in the health of the resource in question. * This is down from a good/fair level in 2007. The integrity of habitats is judged to be “fair” or C quality. Some keystone and foundational species in the 2020 report are in better shape than the 2007 report; some are in worse shape. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that after 30 years of management as a sanctuary, the habitat and living marine resources inside a sanctuary should be better than “fair” or a grade of C.  We think so.

A humpback whale breaches in SBNMS. Photo- SBNMS/Ari Friedlaender, NOAA Research Permit #14245

Whales, fish, and other marine life that live on Stellwagen Bank have no voice; we must be their voice demanding better protection and management. This is why Marine Conservation Institute has demanded better management at Stellwagen sanctuary over the years and why we are working hard on reforming the whole marine sanctuary program. The problems at Stellwagen are apparent at other marine sanctuaries. Failing to tangibly address conditions at Stellwagen Bank sanctuary is simply emblematic of larger problems in NOAA’s marine sanctuary program. To address these systemic problems Marine Conservation Institute, NRDC, Conservation Law Foundation, Surfrider Foundation and other partners are calling on NOAA to reform the program. We are asking NOAA to:

  • Follow the authorizing statute for marine sanctuaries and treat conservation of natural resources as the primary management objective in sanctuaries.
  • Require new management plans to respond to problems identified in Condition Reports; not ignore them.  Where there are declines in resources, NOAA must propose fixes in the management plan.
  • Set aside highly protected marine areas within each sanctuary to serve as benchmarks for scientific research, the impact of climate change, and to show how these areas can recover from over-use.
  • If the regional fishery managers won’t do their proper job, the sanctuary program must.
  • Use existing legal authorities to directly manage fishing inside sanctuaries to prevent declining conditions and restore natural communities.

*NOAA’s 5 level condition report scale is: Good, Good/Fair, Fair, Fair/Poor, and Poor. If Good is an A, then Good/Fair is a B; Fair is a C; Fair/Poor is a D; and Poor is an F.