My Turn: Protecting Cashes Ledge, an offshore oasis

By JOHANNA NEUMANN

Published: 06-14-2023 6:20 PM

From the Norwottuck Rail Trail here at home to the Grand Canyon in the West, beauty abounds in the natural world. It’s found in places big and small — some well-known, others our secret respites from the modern world. Almost all are well-loved, and may have been over-loved during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, when Americans sought refuge and equilibrium in the great outdoors.

These places aren’t only great for our summer vacations and weekend bike rides. These parks, wildlife refuges, ocean sanctuaries and more provide habitats for the wildlife we share this planet with, giving them a toehold on survival.

Off the coast of Massachusetts, we have an opportunity to help achieve our nation’s goal of protecting more nature. Deep in the Gulf of Maine, there lies a place revered by scientists, photographers and other people in the know — an underwater mountain range called Cashes Ledge. Beneath the surface, jagged peaks rise hundreds of feet up from sandy plains. Like a national park on land, this incredible geological feature boasts unique habitats. This is precisely the type of place that warrants consideration for addition to our national marine sanctuary system.

The range’s tallest peak, Ammen Rock, stands about 90 miles off the Massachusetts coast. On Ammen Rock sits the deepest, densest and healthiest kelp forest in the Gulf of Maine and, possibly, the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. Kelp fronds wave in the currents and provide shelter for cod and crabs. Sharks hunt among the kelp, cracks and crevices.

As water flows around the area’s steep cliffs, festooned with yellow, red and rare blue sponges, it forms internal waves that circulate nutrients and propel kelp remnants throughout the ecosystem. It’s an oasis for fish.

Even though Cashes Ledge’s awe-inspiring beauty has earned public goodwill, it’s a challenge to get the government to officially protect any marine area. The axiom “out of sight, out of mind” comes into play. Unlike the Grand Canyon, or even Norwottuck Trail, areas below the ocean’s surface, miles offshore, are inaccessible to most people, with or without scuba gear.

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But Cashes Ledge needs our attention. You could ask the humpback, minke and fin whales that flock to the rich feeding grounds in the area or the Atlantic puffins that winter there. Or the most famous wildlife in the area: Atlantic cod.

Cashes Ledge provides refuge for the cod, which remains overfished in the Gulf of Maine following a massive population decline in the late 20th century. In contrast to the greater Gulf, Cashes Ledge is home to big, healthy cod: fish up to 3 feet long swim within Ammen Rock’s relatively shallow kelp forest, and people have observed “whale cod” up to 5 feet long on Cashes Ledge’s northern edge.

The United States’ 15 national marine sanctuaries in the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes and the Atlantic cover more than 620,000 square miles. Under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, presidential administrations can protect marine environments that are important due to their conservation, recreational, scientific, cultural, educational or other significant qualities. Cashes Ledge fits the bill.

There’s already some precedent, albeit limited, for preserving Cashes Ledge. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries division has enforced temporary protections against commercial fishing over the last 20 years, largely to regrow the populations of cod and other commercially caught fish. But these measures are meant to conserve only a few species and not all the whales, seabirds and sponges that inhabit or migrate through the region. Additionally, the protections aren’t permanent and can be removed at any time.

We can — and must — do better to protect our natural offshore treasures. In general, the more the public knows about saving our wildlife, the more we can get all levels of government to respond. On June 8, the conservation community celebrated World Ocean Day, which provides a timely opportunity to learn about Cashes Ledge and why we need to permanently protect it.

Johanna Neumann of Amherst has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.

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