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Gulf of Maine

Urban Whales, Ocean Sprawl
Can East coast states manage their crowded waters?


View A Slideshow

“Splash, splash” “Who’s there?” – View a slideshow of the many different ocean users we encountered on our trip to Stellwagon Bank.

Story Highlights
  • The Conservancy has studied the Atlantic from Cape Hatteras to the Bay of Fundy, compiling data on shore and sea birds, mammals, sea turtles groundfish, shellfish, large fish and coastal and ocean floor habitats.
  • Ocean planning, with help from the Conservancy, is a new model for finding human uses in the ocean that are compatible with conservation goals.
  • Renewable energy, shipping, fishing, dredging and other uses can be planned in ways that cause the least disruption to animals and habitats that keep the oceans healthy.
Atlantic Activity

How crowded is the water, anyway?
Find out what’s going on in the Atlantic from Virginia to Maine -- see our cool marine spatial planning maps.

By Kerry Crisley

“Over there! There, there!!”

On a whale watch with my kids, I spot the humpback whale about a quarter mile in front of our boat. I shriek – yes, as if I am seven years old, like my son – when I see the mammal bend her back in an impossibly acute angle and dive, waving goodbye with her fluke. She’s dining on sand lance, a fish rich in fat that is found here in abundance.  

It’s a warm, sunny day, and we’re in theStellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a 638-square mile area that I’ve heard called “the ecological jewel of the Gulf of Maine.”

A Busy Bay

We’re far from alone out here. In addition to the whales, sheerwater birds and storm petrels that have introduced themselves today, we’ve seen commuter ferries, freighters, harbor police, sailboats, trawlers, tuna boats, a service vessel for the underwater liquefied natural gas terminal, Coast Guard, whale watching cruises, and fishing boats of every size and shape.

“Humpbacks come here from Florida and the Caribbean, on their yearly trek to New England to feed,” says Sally McGee, director of The Nature Conservancy’s New England marine program, when I share my experience on the whale watch. “They have to travel through thousands of miles of shipping lanes dodging giant freighters, navy vessels, fishing boats and tankers along the way. These are urban whales; their migratory routes are as busy as major highways.

Planning A Town … In Water

This motley crew of boats makes for a fun game of I Spy, but if it isn’t balanced well it could become a problem. The Atlantic is crowded, and with more people turning to the ocean to host new sources of energy, states are looking at ways to curb “ocean sprawl.”

“Think about what goes into planning a town,” continued McGee. “You have areas for the houses where we live, areas for the businesses and industries where we work and shop, and areas set aside as parks and open space where we play and watch wildlife. The same principles need to be applied to the ocean.”

What’s needed, says McGee, is a planning process that is streamlined and collaborative, rather than a collection of separate – and often conflicting – plans segmented by industry. By working together to consider different scenarios of ocean use in a larger and more comprehensive context, we can choose the one that best meets the needs of people and does the least harm to marine life and habitat. 

Sharing the Science

The Conservancy has studied the Atlantic from Cape Hatteras to the Bay of Fundy, compiling data on shore and sea birds, mammals, sea turtles groundfish, shellfish, large pelagic fish (like shark, tuna and squid) and coastal and ocean floor habitats. This assessment has been a resource for east coast states – including Massachusetts – as they developed their ocean plans, and to the National Ocean Council, which was created by President Obama in 2010 to help guide how we collectively manage our ocean resources. Your support helps make the Conservancy a leader in helping decision-makers make wise choices about our ocean uses.

“These plans are excellent frameworks for ocean use, with solid data and an inclusive process,” said McGee. “It will help take advantage of offshore renewable energy potential; the key is to make sure that these are located in places that will be the least disruptive to the animals and habitats that make this part of the Atlantic so valuable.”

In order to do that, she says, we need to take a close look at the science that’s been collected and understand what the cumulative impact of all these ocean uses – shipping, energy, dredging, sand and gravel mining, fishing and more – is having on our marine environment.

“Our oceans give us a lot: food, jobs, medicine. And it’s an inspiring place to be,” says McGee. “We can keep all this and get the clean energy we need, as long we take the time to find the best balance.”

Go Deeper

Can We Save Maine's Fisheries?
Planning for Ocean Use and Conservation
Urban Whales / Ocean Sprawl Slideshow
Fact Sheet on the Marine ecoregional assessment for the Northwest Atlantic Marine region. (449KB, .pdf)

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