Within commuting distance of Boston, Portland and Portsmouth, seals swim among eelgrass, and humpback whales chase schools of sand lace. Young lobsters and silver minnows dart through the sea, and in the ocean’s depths, corals coexist with otherworldly creatures like basket stars and anemones. This is the Gulf of Maine, a body of water more biologically productive than almost any other place in Earth’s oceans.
But the Gulf of Maine isn’t just important to wildlife. Millions of people rely on the Gulf’s resources as well. Fishermen have plied the waters for its riches of cod, haddock and flounder for centuries. And its seas and shores provide ports of commerce, protection from storms, and a beautiful natural world for sailing, swimming and beachcombing.
Today, the Gulf is showing signs of distress. Many of its historic fish populations have been depleted. Critical coastal habitats have been developed or degraded by pollution. Storm surges are stronger and sea levels on the rise.
But it’s not too late to reverse the damage. The Conservancy is integrating data related to oceanography, biology, chemistry and even social sciences to identify threats to conservation targets in the region and establish a baseline that will help us develop conservation strategies tailored to the Gulf. This broad range of projects includes the following strategies:
In working to restore the Gulf, we must find ways to avail ourselves of the vast pool of knowledge of local resource users—not only because they have valuable information and experience, but also because our success is wholly dependent on their involvement. No one has a greater incentive for protecting this resource than fishermen. And no one has a greater stake in the outcome of these efforts.
Under the Gulf of Maine Permit Banking Program, the Conservancy will work with partners to buy groundfish permits and make them available to fishermen to perform research on sustainable fishing practices, as well as on the current distribution of groundfish species. The results of the research will be promoted among the scientific and fishing communities and to the various governmental agencies that regulate Gulf fisheries. In the long term, the Conservancy may expand this program in partnership with coastal communities, to further scientific understanding of the Gulf and to support increased adoption of sustainable practices.
Sea level rise due to climate change could move the Gulf of Maine’s shoreline hundreds of meters inland, stranding coastal habitats between the open ocean and seawalls built to protect homes, roads and other manmade structures. In places like New Hampshire’s Great Bay, we are working with partners to obtain and analyze high resolution maps of seacoasts and estuaries so we can identify the coastal lands that are most vulnerable today and protect the land that will become tomorrow’s marshes.
The same rivers used by alewife, shad, salmon and sturgeon bring essential freshwater flows to the Gulf of Maine. But many of these rivers and streams have been blocked and degraded. In watersheds throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, the Conservancy is working with partners to restore migratory fish habitats by removing dams and installing fishways. And in the country’s most ambitious river restoration project, we are restoring access to more than 1,000 river miles of Maine’s Penobscot River watershed, while minimizing the loss of generating power.
Along the Gulf’s coast, shellfish beds, salt marshes, eelgrass beds and coastal creeks provide nurseries for fish, feeding ground for shorebirds and a more stable shoreline. For humans, this habitat buffers the flow of pollution coming from land to sea and protects inland areas against storms and erosion. The Conservancy is repairing damage in areas like Wellfleet Bay where we are launching Massachusetts’ first-ever oyster reef restoration project.
As our marine program grows, we will continue to look for innovative ways to adapt the market-based approaches we've used successfully on land. For instance, we'll evaluate how tools like easements and lease agreements can be used to restore degraded coastal habitats and protect particularly vulnerable areas. We will also explore new ways to achieve better conservation by increasing our proprietary interest in selected fisheries. And as we explore alternative approaches to fisheries management, we will continue an open dialogue with fishermen. While we pursue all of these strategies, we'll also delve deeper into exploring the effects of climate change on our oceans and coast.
Through all of these efforts, we hope to create solutions in the Gulf of Maine that are smart, sustainable and beneficial to both nature and people.