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Redefining Open Space: The Case for Protecting Open Space in the Sea

By Priscilla Brooks, Vice President and Director, Ocean Conservation, Conservation Law Foundation

Nestled on Massachusetts’ North Shore, Ipswich is an historic New England community with a vibrant town center, friendly people, and working farms.

What really strikes visitors to this small town, however, is its open space. A remarkable 47 percent of the town is protected. People here seem to share a common, almost innate understanding that their quality of life is intimately tied to their open space – and that they need green spaces to balance a landscape increasingly developed for housing and commerce.

The people of Ipswich are not alone – New England boasts 500 land trusts working to protect the places that make living in this corner of the country so special. Across the country, the number of active land trusts tops out at more than 1,700, which, together, have conserved 47 million acres of land. That number of protected acres only gets bigger when you add in state and national park systems and wildlife refuges.

So, when I think about the concept of open space in the ocean, I am confounded by how differently we treat our saltwater resources. There’s not even a term for open space at sea. I know, for many of us, the vast blue expanse of the ocean looks like nothing but “open space.” But beneath the waves is a landscape as diverse, breathtaking, and dramatic as any on land – a dynamic seascape of boulder reefs, hard and soft corals, luxuriant kelp forests, muddy basins, ever-changing sand plains, and beautiful canyons full of exotic marine life.

Yet only a fraction of our oceans – barely two percent – is permanently protected worldwide.

Surely in the same way that we bank away critical portions of our terrestrial landscape for its inherent value, we can protect equally vital seascapes so that our ocean can survive and thrive for generations to come. That protection should follow the same principles as on land, which we manage for multiple uses. We need appropriate places to develop and site clean renewable offshore wind energy, for example. And, we need fishing grounds to support our venerable fishing industry and the production of the delicious seafood for which our coastal regions are renowned.

But we also have to acknowledge that fishing, while important, is not a benign activity; few exploitative industries are. And some fishing gear – trawls and dredges, in particular – are more destructive than others. Our decisions about how to manage the ocean, then, must balance both realities. That’s why Conservation Law Foundation is pushing to protect some of New England’s most remarkable – and vulnerable – ocean open spaces before they are damaged beyond repair.

Cashes Ledge is one of those vulnerable places. Located in the Gulf of Maine about 80 miles from Portland, Maine, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, Cashes Ledge rivals any earthbound landscape in beauty, biodiversity, and grandeur. The steep ridges and deep basins along this 25-mile-long mountain range create ideal conditions for marine life as currents mix nutrient- and oxygen-rich water from the top of the water column to the seafloor far below. Home to the deepest and largest cold-water kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard, Cashes Ledge provides an important source of food and a diverse habitat for fish, sharks, marine mammals, and an astounding array of invertebrates. This diversity also makes it a valuable open-sea laboratory for scientists studying ocean ecosystems and the impacts of climate change.

 

Photograph by Brian Skerry, courtesy of Conservation Law Foundation
Photograph by Brian Skerry, courtesy of Conservation Law Foundation

 

For the past 12 years Cashes Ledge and the area surrounding it have been closed to most commercial fishing – and it shows. The area is lush and productive, a refuge not only for threatened groundfish like Atlantic cod, but also for rare species such as Atlantic wolffish and North Atlantic right whales. As I write, however, federal fisheries managers are considering a proposal to re-open the whole area to the most harmful kinds of commercial fishing, which could devastate this prized seascape.

Cashes Ledge is one of those remarkable places that few people will ever get to experience for themselves – only the most skilled divers attempt to explore its depths. To help expose the underwater beauty and diversity of Cashes Ledge, Conservation Law Foundation has partnered with noted marine photojournalist Brian Skerry, a contributing photographer to National Geographic Magazine and a National Geographic Photography Fellow. During his long career, Brian has photographed oceanscapes around the world, documenting their beauty and their fragility for all of us to see. Now he’s come back home to his native New England waters, capturing through his expert lens Cashes Ledge’s rainforest-like kelp forest, expansive mussel beds, sea stars and sea anemones, red Atlantic cod and cunner, and so much more.

Brian knows that seeing is believing – and he shares with us a conviction that, by revealing the wonder of Cashes Ledge through his dramatic and mesmerizing photography, we can inspire people’s passion for its protection, a passion as strong as any stirred by our most beloved landscapes.

We can – we must – change the way we think about ocean open spaces, and move forward meaningful protection for our most vital seascapes, places like Cashes Ledge.

Priscilla Brooks is the Director of Ocean Conservation at Conservation Law Foundation where she works to restore and protect New England’s ocean wildlife and habitats.