Scott Kraus, vice president and senior science advisor at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston, talks about the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, created last year and already under threat.
Undersea National Monument Could Be Left High and Dry
Scott Kraus, vice-president and senior science advisor at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston, talks about the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, created last year and already under threat.
Steve Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American's Science Talk, posted on July 11, 2017. I'm Steve Mirsky. On this episode:
Scott Kraus: The monument contains an ecosystem that was undiscovered 30 or 40 years ago. It's got these deep-sea coral species that live over a thousand years.
Mirsky: That's Scott Kraus. He's the vice president and senior science advisor at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston. And he was one of the authors in March 2016 of a scientific assessment for a proposed marine national monument off the northeast US. That led to the creation last year of what's now called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which is already under threat.
I spoke to Kraus by phone. Tell me, what are the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument?
Kraus: The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument encompasses a body of water and the submarine lands around three deep sea canyons, called Oceanographer, Lydonia, and Gilbert, and then four seamounts, Bear, Physalia, Retriever, and Mytilus. And the seamounts are incredible. They actually arise from the abyssal plain at about 14,000 feet, up to about 2,000 feet underwater, so that they actually represent undersea mountains on the order of 12,000 feet high.
Mirsky: And these are extinct volcanos?
Kraus: They are, they are extinct volcanos, and they represent sort of this deep-water seamounts habitat, which is not – We're just beginning to understand what goes on in these places. They're quite unusual. And then the deep-sea canyons are sort of residual canyons left over from the glaciation over Georges Bank. They're on the southern edge of Georges Bank, and they start at about 200 meters of depth, and they go down to the abyssal plain, about like 4,000 meters, something like that.
Mirsky: So for us terrestrial people, tell us where exactly this is in relation to the land we live on.
Kraus: Okay, if you were standing on Cape Cod, and you were standing on, let's say, the southern point of Chatham and looking offshore, you would be looking over Georges Bank. You would be looking across the Great South Channel, and then you have Georges Bank. And then, sort of on the right-hand side of your view field, if you're looking at Georges Bank, they're down there.
They're a little bit to the south of the Cape, and about 130 miles east.
Mirsky: And these are currently protected waters.
Kraus: Yeah, so what the proclamation under the Antiquities Act that made them a monument – went through several iterations, but the final proclamation actually divided the monument into two sections. One is a smaller square, which encompasses the canyons, and the second one is a slightly larger triangle, which extends from the innermost seamount, which is called Bear, out to the boundary of the US economic zone, which is 200 miles off shore. So that's sort of the shape of the two sections there.
And they are protected from things like seabed mining, oil and gas drilling, most fisheries, but not all. They are – Some things – like recreational fishing is allowed, whale watching, bird watching, if you wanted to do that.
Mirsky: But I can't throw a 40-mile net down around there.
Kraus: That's correct.
Mirsky: And this only became really a monument very recently, right?
Kraus: In – Hmm. It was in, I think, November/December of last year. So 2016, right in the end of Obama's presidency.
Mirsky: And what is the purpose of having this protected area? I saw a fisherman describe it on a video as being a generator for the larger area around it. A generator of biodiversity.
Kraus: Well, I think that's actually a pretty good characterization of it. For one thing, the monument contains an ecosystem that was undiscovered 30 or 40 years ago. It's got these deep-sea coral species that live over a thousand years. And the whole ecosystem around them is an extremely old ecosystem. A lot of things depend upon the coral substructure and the organisms that live around and on corals.
And if you had to make a terrestrial analog, you would think about something like the Joshua Tree National Monument, or perhaps the Sequoia National Forest, where you've got incredibly large plants with hundreds of years of animals and plants that have lived around it. And the whole ecosystem is built around those giant trees. In the deep sea you don't see anything the size of a sequoia, but some of these corals – which were unknown to science, and they're still discovering dozens of new species every time they put an ROV or a submarine down there – these corals are sometimes eight to ten feet tall, and sometimes larger. And it's just extraordinarily unusual habitat with remarkable colors for such a dark place. And yet we don't know much about it. It's just extraordinary place for discovery. One of the things that motivated us, of course, is climate change—happening in the ocean in the northwestern Atlantic faster than any other place on the planet. One of the things that having a place where there's no human activity that's doing any damage to the – or exploiting any resources within an area is that it serves as a reference point. If, for example, you have big climatological changes, and the animals or fish or benthic organisms die off or move away, one could argue if there's fishing in that area, or intense fishing, then you could argue, "Well, the fishermen did it."
But if there are no fishermen in there, then it serves as a reference point that allows you to think of it as a control experiment, where if things change within it, it's likely due to temperature and acidity, changes in climate, and not due to any kind of human activities. And we have no place actually in the Atlantic where we can actually do that. There's no control place at the moment.
Mirsky: I don't know if this is a fruitful line, but I think most people are aware of the fact that the cod fishery really was damaged by overfishing. And my understanding is that this is an area where cod have a chance to rebound, and then would actually leave the area and repopulate the surrounding area.
Kraus: Actually, there's an area – One of the original monuments proposals was for an area called Cashes Bank, which is where it's been closed to fishing by the Fishery Management Council for 14 or 15 years. And that is the area where cod are actually – appear to be growing larger and having more babies, and recovering in some measure in the Gulf of Maine. For the area in the monuments existing, that place was not designated because of fishing opposition.
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument actually is probably a source habitat for a variety of commercial species that do spill up onto Georges Bank and other areas. And they include things like deep-sea redfish, tilefish, and red crab. So it turns out that whenever areas of the ocean have been closed off to fishing, fish rebound in those areas. And invertebrates, things like lobsters and shellfish, rebound in big numbers.
And where long-term studies have been going on, where these things have been closed, places like New Zealand and Belize, fishermen become their biggest advocates, because in fact the areas around the monuments, or the closed areas, turn out to be some of the best fishing around. So that it is a source of spillover; it's just not likely to be a good source for cod.
Mirsky: Okay, so cod is the Cashes Bank area, which is not what we're talking about, but is related to what we're talking about.
Kraus: Right. The same kind of principles apply here. One of the things that's very interesting about the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is that one of the reasons it was an attractive area for a marine monument, it was this extraordinary biodiversity on the deep sea. But it's also a really – There's a lot of biodiversity for marine mammals, sea turtles and some sea birds as well. And so it turned out that the shelf edge, this deep-to-shallow sort of change in topography there, creates a lot of oceanography that really makes –
it quite exciting in the bottom and at the surface for a biology, because there's lots of cool stuff to see. But it also provides critical feeding, breeding, and migrating habitat for all those species, and there are no protected areas anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean right now, in the United States economic zone. So this was basically the first one. And it was one in which there was a fair amount of science that supported the kinda unique characteristics of it.
Mirsky: Because you have this canyon, a lot of nutrients come spilling down into it, and that cranks up the food web there?
Kraus: Yeah, it's actually really – I think we're – Again, it's a little bit early to say how this thing works. But the whole area is interesting because you've got big currents like the Gulf Stream south of Georges Bank that circulates. It leaves from Cape Hatteras and heads off toward England, right? And north of that there are these big warm-core and cold-core eddies that circulate around just south of the canyons and seamounts. And when they hit that continental shelf edge, which is basically a big underwater cliff that drops –
from Georges Bank down to the abyssal plain, it creates a lot of turbulence, just as when a front coming across from the Pacific hits the Rocky Mountains, there's all of a sudden storms and all kinds of things happen. So the same kinda thing happens under water, but in the case of the monuments' area, it's actually bringing a lot of cold water and nutrients up out of the deep ocean into the surface layer, creates incredible productivity, and that stimulates all this biodiversity that we see both at the surface and in the bottom.
Mirsky: So this region's been protected for less than a year, but it's already under threat because of the new presidential administration.
Kraus: Yes, they are reviewing all of the monuments. I mean, I don't – It's not my expertise to know what the legality of changing or rescinding monuments is. I know it's never been done. I guess there's one case where a monument's protections were changed. But if it were on land – Generally, most people in the United States have been to a national park, and they absolutely – almost everyone loves 'em.
They're probably less familiar with some of the monuments, but some of them have been extraordinary historical places, like Gettysburg and elsewhere, and most people are extremely moved by that. And I think that generally there is support for setting aside these unusual places for all Americans for the future. And if it were on land, there would be probably more people – One of my colleagues has characterized this area of the monuments to being like in a Dr. Seuss book.
If you were to fly through some of these canyons, these bubblegum corals, they look like they're giant trees made out of bubblegum. And it is really – You can't make this stuff up. So if you had this on land, people would be delighted to go see it. It'd be like Disneyland. And a lot of people have said, "Well, it's way out there, and no, I'm never gonna benefit from it. I'm never gonna see it."
But in fact, my colleagues at Mystic Aquarium and at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and myself, we've been scheming up a plan to actually put some ocean observatories out there, and do some expeditions where we could stream live a lot of the stuff, the exploration and the discovery that happens in a place like that, back into the aquariums, both in Boston and at Mystic, so that you could actually share it with millions of people.
So it's kind of an argument of last resort that, "Well, I'll never see it, and so it's not very valuable," because in fact we can make it accessible.
Mirsky: Not to mention whether you see it or not, there's the value of protecting it for its contributions to biodiversity in the ocean in general.
Kraus: Well, yes, I agree with that, but I don't wanna get too geeky about it. I understand the value of biodiversity, but we are in a world in which people do wanna see monetary value, and they wanna understand what exactly – "How does this benefit me?" And so I think as much as I might be thoroughly happy with just the preservation of certain levels of biodiversity, it is important to see and to make the case – especially for scientists to make the case –
that in fact biodiversity benefits people directly, even if they don't see it.
Mirsky: And there is some fisheries economics benefit if these particular attracted species are regenerating their populations based on this protection.
Kraus: Yeah, that's absolutely correct. There was quite a bit of pushback on this particular monument from the fishing communities, most of whom never go out there and don't benefit from it. And I just happened to see an analysis by the New England Fishery Management Council in which they argued that all fishing restrictions of the monument should be rescinded and the management of fishing should be turned over to them. And one of the issues that –
If you read their analysis, what's really interesting is that there are about 80 fishermen who have claimed to fish out there at some time or another, but the average income for any one of those fishermen is less than one percent of their annual income. So it wasn't a very valuable place for them. There's about seven or eight guys for which there's a legitimate case to be made that they have some fishing interest in the area. But people should be aware of two things about this.
One is that the proclamation that declared the monument exempted those guys for the next seven years. They can keep fishing there for seven years, and then after that, they have to find other places. So they have quite a buffer of time to figure out what they're doing. And the second thing that the New England Fishery Management Council analysis showed was that even among those guys who still have some legitimate fishing interest out there, their – it was represented less than ten percent of their annual income.
So again, it was a small fraction of the fishing value that these guys get from the ocean. And that was one of the reasons that it was felt generally that the smaller size – This monument has changed in size. It was originally– When Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut originally proposed the monument, it extended all up and down the southern margins of Georges Bank and included a lot of the seamounts out to the economic zone boundary. And that's been changed to accommodate the fisheries that are off to the east of it.
And it was separated from the inshore area by also accommodating the travel of the pelagic longliners up along the continental shelf edge, too. The monument's been shrunk quite a bit, and what's left is actually quite a good representation of this deep water, shelf edge habitat which is not protected anywhere else.
Mirsky: When you say pelagic longliners, you're talking about those 40-mile-net fishing boats that I mentioned briefly earlier?
Kraus: No, the pelagic longliners are a group of pretty responsible fishermen who fish with long lines that have like hooks every hundred meters or something. And they're baited hooks that collect swordfish, and bluefin tuna, and some other types of tuna as well. And they've been at the forefront of doing quite a bit of work on ways to reduce bycatch of unwanted species, and eliminate turtle bycatch, and all that stuff. So they're pretty responsible fishery. And this is also not a big area for most of them, either.
We don't have a lot of data on their fishery, but it doesn't look like too many guys fish in there.
Mirsky: So right now the monument is in a state of uncertainty.
Kraus: The thing about marine monuments is they fall under two jurisdictions. One is Interior, and Commerce, under the National Marine Fishery Service, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration. And so the two agencies work together to try to figure out how monuments should be managed. They usually have joint superintendents or joint management in some way.
Mirsky: And are there gonna be hearings at which you might be testifying?
Kraus: The work that was done leading up to the monument designation included a couple of hearings and several public fora, and then a series of interviews with Council of Environmental Quality, and some of the previous administration's officials came to New England and talked to a lot of stakeholders. I don't know what the process is going to be, going forward. If they decide to do alterations to the monument, would they hold public hearings? I have no idea. So we'll have to see how it evolves.
Mirsky: And I just want listeners to know that there are videos shot underwater in this area that you can access on the Web right now, and it really is pretty remarkable how dense it is with life, and colorful, and all the different kinds of species you'll see.
Kraus: Yeah, it's pretty extraordinary. And there are several places where you can look at some of the ongoing footage online. I know the Mystic Aquarium is planning to develop a Monuments exhibit so you can actually see a lot of the stuff in that exhibit. And like I said, we're talking with Woods Hole about developing more extensive ways of actually seeing what's out there in real time.
Mirsky: Any idea when any kinda decision is gonna be made?
Kraus: I believe that the secretary has promised to make some decisions within 45 days of his meetings with the fishermen and with us in Boston. So that's probably another month away. Probably mid-August.
Mirsky: Is this Interior or Commerce?
Mirsky: Okay. And your actual research specialty is whales, marine mammals?
Kraus: Yeah. I have been working with whales and dolphins for most of my career, and that is my specialty. My interest in this area offshore was to really look at –We were asked to do a scientific analysis of what would be appropriate to designate as a marine monument. And my colleague Peter Auster at the University of Connecticut did the benthic work, or the coral work, and I did the marine mammal work.
And the marine mammal work is quite extraordinary, because it's not animals that you would see on a whale watch. If you were to go out from Boston or Cape Cod on a whale watch, you're gonna see humpbacks and fin whales and minke whales, and maybe some white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoise. If you go out to the continental shelf edge where the monument is, you'll see 10 to 12 different species of whales and dolphins, and almost none of them will overlap with the species that you would see in the inshore waters.
They're just – The shelf edge species are quite different. You get a selection of animals out there that are some of the champion deep divers of the world. So, for example, there's two or three species of beaked whales that lived out there. People are probably not familiar with that term, but a beaked whale – and that's just like it sounds, "beak," like a bird beak – these whales dive up to two hours at a time, and they can go 6,000 feet deep.
And they primarily live on squid, and they're just really interesting creatures. Extraordinary adaptations to deep ocean living. And they're found out there, but they're not found anywhere else inshore. So it's one of the really interesting features of that area. And of course, by protecting it, it creates the first place in the Atlantic where marine mammals can go where they don't have probability of getting entangled in some kind of fishing gear.
Mirsky: Well, we'll keep following this story and see how it develops.
And thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.
Kraus: Okay. Happy to do it.
Mirsky: That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.scientificamerican.com, where you can also check out the article titled, The Problem with Being a Top Performer, about how being excellent at your job may wind up getting you punished. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American's Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
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