Threatened Marine Monument Is a Whale and Dolphin ‘Hot Spot’

[Originally published November 22nd 2017 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

Looking out from shore amid a rapidly approaching northeastern winter, you would hardly imagine that a hive of activity could be taking place in the distant open ocean.

Yet this is what the aerial survey team at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium witnessed last week, approximately 150 miles offshore of Cape Cod within the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

 Fin whales are observed feeding in the productive waters of the Monument.   Paul Nagelkirk (New England Aquarium)

Fin whales are observed feeding in the productive waters of the Monument. 

Paul Nagelkirk (New England Aquarium)

The aerial team found an extraordinary abundance and diversity of whales and dolphins, including bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins, filter-feeding fin whales and deep diving sperm whales, and perhaps most exciting of all, eleven Cuvier’s beaked whales, one of the most elusive of all marine mammals.

Importantly, several individuals were observed feeding, and the dolphins and beaked whales were all accompanied by calves or young animals. The rich feeding habitat within Monument clearly represents a marine mammal hotspot, and the abundance of young animals observed during this most recent survey, as well as on previous expeditions, indicates that it may even represent an important nursery area for whales and dolphins.

 Risso's dolphins (and a number of other species) have been sighted with calves during multiple surveys, indicating the Monument may provide an important nursery for whales and dolphins.   Ester Quintana (New England Aquarium)

Risso's dolphins (and a number of other species) have been sighted with calves during multiple surveys, indicating the Monument may provide an important nursery for whales and dolphins. 

Ester Quintana (New England Aquarium)

Established in September 2016 by President Obama, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is comprised of three underwater canyons that plunge deeper than the Grand Canyon and four impressive seamounts (extinct underwater volcanoes). The Monument is recognized for its spectacular array of deep sea corals as well as its large populations of fish, sharks, marine mammals, and sea birds.

Tragically, this ocean treasure and the only marine national monument off the coast of the continental United States is under attack by the Trump Administration. In April, President Trump issued two executive orders requiring the Department of Interior and the Department of Commerce to review 27 national monuments and make recommendations aimed at weakening their protections, reducing their size, or revoking them entirely, all in the service of commercial interests such as Big Oil and the commercial fishing industry. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was caught in the President’s crosshairs.

 Deep diving sperm whales also rely on the Northeast Canyons for their abundance of squid.   Ester Quintana (New England Aquarium)

Deep diving sperm whales also rely on the Northeast Canyons for their abundance of squid. 

Ester Quintana (New England Aquarium)

In a report leaked to the press in September, Secretary of Interior Zinke recommended to the President that commercial fishing be allowed in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The prospect that the Monument could be opened to commercial fishing is a grave concern. Whales and dolphins, and other species including sharks, sea turtles, and seabirds, can easily get caught in fishing gear and drown or become seriously injured, leading to a long and painful death. Entanglement in ropes from lobster pots and other types of fishing gear is one of the main factors driving the dangerous decline of the iconic North Atlantic right whale, and the vaquita off Baja California face imminent extinction due to bycatch in fishing nets. Opening an important whale and dolphin feeding area and potential nursery to commercial fishing would be a great loss.

The Monument’s economic impacts on commercial fishing are considered to have been negligible in the short-term and will, in fact, likely become positive in the long-term for some species as the populations in the monument area spill over to adjacent fishing areas. Recreational fishing is allowed in the Monument and the Atlantic canyons are a prime deep-sea angling destination. 

NRDC is fighting with every tool at its disposal to protect the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument and its marine mammals. If you want to help, you should urge your Senators to oppose any rollbacks to our marine national monuments, including the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.