A push to protect marine fishery

US report looks at Stellwagen Bank Ban on catching sand lance advised

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / July 6, 2010

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In its nearly two decades of existence, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has largely existed in name only. The submerged plateau off Massachusetts contains a wealth of whales and shipwrecks and enough biological diversity to rival a South American rainforest, but its bounty and geography also draw fishermen, whale-watching boats, and ships.

Now, a newly released management plan a decade in the making builds the strongest scientific case yet for better protecting the 842-square-mile sanctuary from humans, according to its authors and conservationists.

The federal government report, designed to guide sanctuary conservation efforts over the next five years, stops short of calling for immediate regulation. However, it says managers may develop rules by 2015 to better manage boats that get too close to whales, ensure stricter protection of at least 35 shipwrecks, prohibit fishing of key species, and zone the sea to preserve habitat.

Protection of Stellwagen Bank has long been politically sensitive because of its many competing uses: Sanctuary waters produce $40 million to $60 million a year, mostly for commercial fishermen and the whale-watching industry.

The cool waters are a vast whale nursery and host 22 marine mammal species, including the endangered humpback, fin, and sei whales and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, according to the report, which was written by sanctuary staff and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sponge gardens and beds of worm tubes carpet the seabed, and 575 known species call it home, probably only a fraction of what is truly there. The area produces twice as much food for fish and other marine species than the fabled Georges Bank fishing ground off Massachusetts.

“It makes the case for how badly the sanctuary has been degraded and why it needs much, much stronger management,’’ said Priscilla Brooks, director of the ocean conservation program at the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group.

The document does call for considering a ban on one particular fish: the sand lance, a small abundant fish in Stellwagen that whales feast upon and tuna, cod, and other fish also eat. Although fishermen don’t now go after sand lance, a fishery has developed in the North Sea, and sanctuary managers say it would be prudent to prohibit fishing of it before one develops.

“The sand lance is the pulse of Stellwagen,’’ said Craig MacDonald, superintendent of the sanctuary. “The place pops when sand lance is here.’’

The sand lance proposal illustrates how complicated protection can be for sanctuary species. Although sanctuaries have the legal right to develop rules to protect a species, they often first attempt to do it through existing authorities, such as local fishing councils. But the councils have little experience regulating fish that are not yet commercially valuable.

Yesterday, fishermen contacted by the Globe had not seen the final management plan but said the sand lance doesn’t need protection.

“My concern is if nobody is fishing them, where is the problem?’’ said Rip Cunningham, vice chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council. He said he was worried that any protection of sand lance could indirectly lead to limits on valuable species fishermen want, such as by further regulating fishing gear or when fishermen can fish.

Once, Stellwagen Bank, situated between Cape Ann and Cape Cod, was exposed land, covered with trees and animals. Slowly covered by water as glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age, the 19-mile-long, six-mile-wide plateau is etched with steep canyons, gravel beds, and other topography that make it a marine hot spot.

In 1992, Congress formed the sanctuary after threats to it from a massive floating casino, hazardous waste dumping, and sand and gravel mining. Yet although mining and hazardous waste dumping were banned, deeper protections were not built in for the sanctuary, one of 13 in the country.

That has slowly begun to change. New shipping lanes went into effect recently to minimize ship and whale collisions. Better scientific methods have allowed whales to be tracked more closely, helping scientists learn far more about them, including how important sand lance are to whales.

In one case, biologists followed a female whale and calf, according to David Wiley, a sanctuary whale researcher. The pair traveled more slowly than solitary whales, keeping them from getting to sand lance feeding areas during the day. But at night, the whales were seen rolling on the sea floor, probably feeding on lance that burrow into the sand when it grows dark.

There are many other concerns in the sanctuary. The plan notes that every year “virtually every square kilometer of the sanctuary is physically disturbed by fishing’’ and the area is a “hot spot’’ for spotting whales entangled in fishing gear. Fishing gear can also can get hooked on shipwrecks, damaging them.

The sanctuary staff remains deeply concerned about boats harassing whales, although they say the situation may have improved after a widely publicized 2008 report Wiley led that noted most whale-watching boats were disregarding a decade-old pledge to slow down near the leviathans.

If other agencies do not move to protect the sanctuary soon, managers there say they have the right to institute what the bulk of some 25,000 comments about the plan called for: more protection.

“This is a national treasure,’’ said MacDonald.

Beth Daley can be reached at