The features beyond our shores are as beautiful and diverse as our more familiar landscapes. But to many of us, these underwater wonders are about as familiar as the West was to Lewis and Clark when they first set out.
Now, thanks to a different kind of expedition, this is changing.
For two and a half years, Nature Conservancy scientists Mark Anderson and Jenn Greene have collaborated with dozens of other scientists to compile and explore thousands of data sets on the stretch of ocean that extends from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to the Bay of Fundy in Canada, providing the first ever region-wide view of these marine habitats and species.
Soon, they’ll be bringing this data to decision makers to help them identify compatibilities and conflicts between different ocean uses. But first, Mark and Jenn shared their perspectives of the North Atlantic neighborhood and the fascinating creatures that live there.
What’s the most interesting creature living in the North Atlantic?
Without a doubt, it’s the striped dolphin. These canyon-specialist dolphins often feed on the edge of the continental shelf, diving deep into underwater canyons on the shelf slope to find squid and octopus. They’ve been known to leap over 20 feet above the water’s surface and to dive to depths of 2,300 feet.
Jenn: I have to disagree; it’s definitely the wolffish. Wolffish live in the sides of sunken mountains and use their teeth to grind their prey to death. Frightening? Yes. But there’s a tender story here, too. In the spring, male and female wolffish form pair-bonds. When the female lays her eggs on the sea floor, the male wolffish curls around them, guarding his offspring from predators. He even forgoes eating during that time.
If you could visit one place the assessment examined, where would you go?
I like the mountains. I’d go to Cashes Ledge — the highest point of a submerged mountain range about 80 miles east of the Massachusetts coast in the Gulf of Maine.
Underwater peaks here rise almost to the surface and support one of the deepest kelp forests and seaweed communities in the world. There are plenty of nooks and crannies for wolffish, I might add.
Jenn: I’d visit Hudson Canyon, a drowned river system that extends out from the Hudson River and drops off to a steep canyon comparable in size and depth to the Grand Canyon. It was carved by sediment and underwater avalanches back when the sea level was at least 400 feet lower than it is today.
People usually associate corals with places like the Caribbean, but this canyon’s rocky areas host a healthy crop of cold-water corals.
What do you see as the assessment’s most interesting finding?
I was fascinated by the extent to which areas where migratory species concentrate correspond to particular seafloor features. The place where the continental shelf drops off into deep water is important to corals and canyon specialists, and it’s also a migratory route for sperm whales. The sandy shelf off Long Island supports bottom fish like hake and flounder, as well as large pelagic fish that live in the water column.
The assessment highlighted fascinating connections between species, places and processes.
You can help ensure we are able to lead more cutting-edge initiatives like this one when you support our work.
Jenn: For me, it’s just how many human uses are at play in this part of the ocean. Alongside every species and habitat we examined, we also considered the stresses from human activities.
Some uses, like commercial fishing, have been here for centuries. Others, like offshore wind farms, underwater natural gas terminals, oil drilling and floating turbines that generate tidal power are relatively new on the scene. All of these activities require infrastructure in the ocean.
So this huge marine assessment is complete. What now?
Science isn’t just about discoveries; it’s about what you do with the information once you have it. I’m looking forward to the getting this information into the hands of decision makers.
Jenn: I agree. This assessment has given us some exciting opportunities to support coastal and marine spatial planning in the North Atlantic. It’s a wonky term, but it means mapping the most critical ocean places for people and nature, and using those maps to figure out the best places for different activities.
But, after I put the final touches on the 500-page report, my next step might be to have a beer.
Mark: I would join you for that!