On a recent college field trip, I saw two critically endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an 842-square-mile strip of ocean off Boston in the Gulf of Maine. The whales swam along the surface, their huge callus-encrusted mouths open to capture food. Nearby, humpback whales displayed their graceful fins before descending into the depths. Atlantic white-sided dolphins surfed in our wake and gray seals bobbed their heads above the waves.
My experience does not reflect the overall health of the area. Although it is a national marine sanctuary, Stellwagen Bank is not well protected: ships can still cross and fishing is still allowed. The once plentiful Atlantic cod have been overfished for decades, but fishing on depleted cod populations is permitted in the sanctuary.
Ship traffic at Stellwagen Bank makes it one of the busiest national marine sanctuaries. For whales, which depend on sound to communicate, it’s like always being in a noisy high school cafeteria. Collisions with boats and entanglement in fishing gear are major reasons for the steep decline of North Atlantic right whales, a species that numbers fewer than 350.
In 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for overseeing the National Marine Sanctuary system, released a report summarizing the degradation of Stellwagen Bank and noted that the Atlantic cod stock is in a “fair/poor” condition and deteriorating, despite being “centered or contracted” in sanctuary. The report also notes that right whales and humpback whales are in “poor” condition.
As someone just out of their teens, it breaks my heart to see Stellwagen Bank already in decline. The failure to meaningfully protect Stellwagen thus far is just one manifestation of the overall loss of a healthy ocean for my generation – a loss that is decidedly avoidable.
It’s not just the sanctuary’s wildlife that is suffering. Stellwagen Bank also contains sites of historic value to New Englanders, including the Portland, a steamship that sank in 1898. The NOAA report states that “contact with fishing gear affected almost all the resources of the maritime heritage of the sanctuary”.
Recently, NOAA released a draft management plan for the sanctuary, but it contains no meaningful action to address the issues posed by commercial fishing and shipping. It is well below what is needed to protect the Stellwagen Bank. Without meaningful protection, Stellwagen will continue to be a sanctuary in name only, its iconic species will continue to dwindle, and my generation will continue to lose hope.
NOAA must revise its management plan to include strong actions to repair the health of Stellwagen Bank, starting with restrictions on commercial fishing to protect everything from species to shipwrecks in the sanctuary, as well as speed regulations. vessels to limit underwater noise and harm to whales. If NOAA implements these regulations, Stellwagen Bank could serve as a haven for Gulf of Maine cod, North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales, as well as other animals.
Protecting the sanctuary is vital to all Americans. Research shows that protecting at least 30% of the world’s land and waters by 2030 will be key to tackling the climate crisis and stopping the current marine mass extinction. The Biden administration has embraced this goal through the America the Beautiful initiative, which aims to meaningfully protect 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
Leaders can count places like Stellwagen Bank toward that goal, but the percentage of U.S. waters labeled as “protected” is irrelevant if those protections aren’t enforced and aren’t producing the conservation results they expect. By celebrating these areas of weak protection as victories, the leaders have failed only themselves, the youth and the ocean.
Strengthening Stellwagen Bank’s management plan will reaffirm the Biden administration’s commitment to protecting the ocean and pave the way for bolder and more regenerative ocean policies. This is a step in the right direction for Americans, the ocean and young people like me who inherit this planet.
Isha Sangani is a Harvard College Class of 2024 and an intern with the National Ocean Protection Coalition. She is a guest speaker at the United Nations World Oceans Day June 8. She can be found on Instagram @ishapaintsfish.