Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
• Official Web Site (at stellwagen.noaa.gov)
• Sanctuary Map (at stellwagen.noaa.gov)
Stellwagen Bank was designated a National Marine Sanctuary in 1992 by Congress. The designation came 10 years after the area was first nominated for consideration by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. During the public comment period in 1991, the NOAA received petitions signed by more than 20,000 people in support of sanctuary status. The sanctuary was renamed the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in 1996 by Congress, in recognition of Mr. Studds' contributions to marine conservation and management during his 26 years in the House of Representatives.
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is located about 25 miles east of Boston, on an underwater plateau at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. The area was formed by glacial retreat and was above sea level until about 12,000 years ago, when the glaciers melted and the bank was submerged beneath the sea. Stellwagen Bank is historically a rich and productive fishing ground, especially for groundfish species such as cod, haddock and flounder, although larger fish, such as bluefin tuna and sharks, have been caught in the area as well. In the past half century, the area has become well known for whale watching. Regularly seen species are the humpback whale, fin whale, minke whale, northern right whale, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, harbor porpoise, pilot whale and harbor seal.
The SBNMS sits astride the shipping lanes to Boston and sees a constant stream of traffic. More than 400 years of fishing history and close to 40 years of active whale watching make this a popular location. The sanctuary encourages whale watchers to use the commercial fleet to reduce vessel congestion and offers instruction to recreational boaters on safe boating practices around whales. The sanctuary is now studying various methods to minimize vessel strikes on marine mammals and reduce marine mammal entanglements in fishing gear.
The sanctuary is recognized as among the premiere places in the world to watch whales. More than 12 companies offer whale-watching trips in or near the sanctuary from May to October. Many of these include trained naturalists, who provide commentary during the trips and collect data for research programs. For a list of companies offering trips from Cape Cod, Boston and other departure points, visit http://www.stellwagen.noaa.gov/visit/whalewatching/
Resources and Information about the sanctuary can be found at exhibits around the region, including Provincetown, where an SBNMS exhibit features videoscopes giving visitors a direct look at sanctuary species and seafloor research studies. The New England Aquarium in Boston has a Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary component in its Gulf of Maine cold-water gallery. Two large tanks feature the species found on the sanctuary's deep boulder reefs and sandy banks. A new exhibit at the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center provides a 3-D seafloor model and video footage showing sanctuary habitats and species. A special section focuses on sanctuary shipwrecks and the maritime history of the Stellwagen Bank region. More information about all exhibits is at http://www.stellwagen.noaa.gov/visit/visitorscenters.html.
Watch video of several of the marine animals that inhabit the sanctuary, take a tour of a wrecked steamship, see whale tagging in action and more at http://www.stellwagen.noaa.gov/pgallery/videography.html.
INSIDE THE SANCTUARY
- Researchers use acoustic recording tags to gain a better understanding of how whales use the water column and seafloor habitats relative to human activities. This information is needed to reduce whale mortality caused by entanglement in commercial fishing gear and collisions with ships in the heavily trafficked Massachusetts Bay.
- Studies are under way using micro-radio tags to track the local movements of Atlantic cod in relation to habitat type and season. These studies contribute to the development of optimal conservation and management programs to protect this important keystone predator.
- In partnership with other organizations, the sanctuary has developed a database including multiple species of large marine mammals in the sanctuary. The data is based on more than 350,000 individual sightings, recorded over a 25-year period. Recorded species include the endangered humpback, finback and northern right whales as well as the minke whale.
Challenges Facing the Sanctuary
- Lethal strikes by ships on large whales continue. The sanctuary is petitioning the International Maritime Organization to move the Boston shipping lanes to an area with a lower density of whale sightings.
- Entanglement in fishing gear by endangered whales, particularly the northern right whale, threatens any success in conservation programs. Sanctuary studies of whale behavior may lead to the development of safer fishing practices and more effective marine mammal management strategies.
- Many commercially important fish species in the sanctuary are listed as overexploited, with attendant changes in food webs and the makeup of biological communities. Research in habitat use by selected species may lead to better sanctuary management practices.
- Highly detailed multibeam maps of the entire sanctuary, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA, greatly aid research and management.
- Multiple databases from various whale research organizations have been combined to create an unprecedented 25-year record of great whale sightings in the sanctuary.
- The locations of the passenger steamship Portland and the coal schooners Frank A. Palmer and Louise B. Crary have been confirmed in the sanctuary. Nominations of all three wrecks to the National Register of Historic Places have been accepted.
- Far-field water quality testing in the sanctuary by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was required in the Final MWRA Outfall Monitoring Plan.