Posted on November 26, 2017 by Mary Ann Bragg, Cape Cod Times
Researchers flying over deepwater canyons south of Cape Cod saw Cuvier’s beaked whales and other surprises as part of a study to encourage continued protection of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
“Oh, my God, they are here,” said Ester Quintana of the deep-sea whales that she and other observers flying in a Cessna Skymaster recorded during a four-hour survey Nov. 12.
Quintana is the chief scientist of marine mammal aerial surveys at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium; the survey was the aquarium’s second this year. In the area of the three underwater canyons, which are deeper than the Grand Canyon, the researchers documented all marine animals visible at the surface and any human activity. The 5,000-square-mile protected area also includes four underwater extinct volcanoes, known as seamounts.
On April 26, President Donald Trump ordered a review of two dozen national monuments created or expanded since 1996, which includes the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts that was created in the last days of the Obama administration. The monument, the first of its kind in the Atlantic Ocean, bans fishing, and oil, gas and mineral exploration within its boundaries.
In September, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended to Trump that the monument, located about 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, be opened to commercial fishing. Zinke’s memo stated that instead of prohibiting commercial fishing, the government should allow it in the area under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which is the primary law governing the United States’ marine fisheries and meant to prevent overfishing and guarantee a safe source of seafood.
Conservationists opposed Zinke’s recommendation, while fishing groups supported it.
“They act like this area is all pristine and never touched,” said Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association President Arthur “Sooky” Sawyer of the current protections. “Lobstermen have been fishing in those areas for the last 50-plus years with no negative effect on the marine species.”
The association is one of a handful of commercial fishing groups in an ongoing lawsuit that claims the Antiquities Act of 1906 only allows the president to create or expand monuments on land, not in the marine environment as Obama did.
From the Anderson Cabot Center’s perspective, the aerial surveys provide more recent data to support efforts to protect the national monument, Quintana said.
“We were really very curious about what we were going to see,” she said.
After taking off from Plymouth and topping off the fuel tanks in Nantucket, the team arrived at 9 a.m. in the area of the underwater canyons and flew at an altitude of 1,000 feet in a controlled, zigzag pattern designed to fully cover the surface area.
The surveyors documented 25 bottlenose dolphins, 58 common dolphins, 37 Risso’s dolphins, 11 Cuvier’s beaked whales, four finback whales and one sperm whale, Quintana said. Several animals were observed feeding and nearly all the animals were in groups that contained what were believed to be calves or juveniles based on body size and coloration, possibly indicating use of the area as a nursery, she said.
The surveyors also saw ocean sunfish, sharks and fishing gear, debris and cargo, along with five fishing boats.
“This was the first (confirmed) sighting of this at the canyons,” Quintana said of the Cuvier’s beaked whales, which number 100,000 worldwide and are not considered endangered. Beaked whales tend to dive deeply and feed on squid, some fish and crustaceans. “They come up and then they’re gone,” she said.
The variety of species seen during the survey supports conservationists’ belief that the habitat is a center of biodiversity, Quintana said.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this story. Follow Mary Ann Bragg on Twitter: @maryannbraggCCT.
This post originally appeared in the Cape Cod Times and can be viewed here.