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 swath of ocean that sits off Boston in the Gulf of Maine. The whales were swimming along the surface, their enormous, callosity-encrusted mouths open to capture food. Nearby, humpback whales exposed their graceful flukes before descending into the depths. Atlantic white-sided dolphins surfed in our wake, and gray seals bobbed their heads above the waves.
My experience doesn’t reflect the overall health of the area. Despite being a national marine sanctuary, Stellwagen Bank is not well protected: Ships can still plow through, and fishing is still allowed. Atlantic cod, once abundant, has been subject to overfishing for decades, yet fishing on depleted populations of cod is allowed in the sanctuary.
The vessel traffic in Stellwagen Bank makes it one of the noisiest national marine sanctuaries. For whales, which rely on sound for communication, this is like always being in a loud high school cafeteria. Boat strikes and fishing gear entanglement are significant reasons for the steep decline of North Atlantic right whales, a species with fewer than 350 remaining.
In 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for overseeing the National Marine Sanctuary system, issued a report summarizing the degradation of Stellwagen Bank and noted that the Atlantic cod stock is in “fair/poor” condition and worsening, despite being “centered on or contracted into” the sanctuary. The report also noted that right whales and humpback whales are in “poor” condition.
As someone just out of their teenage years, it breaks my heart to see Stellwagen Bank already in decline. The failure to meaningfully protect Stellwagen thus far is only one manifestation of the global loss of a healthy ocean for my generation — a loss that is decidedly preventable.
It’s not only the sanctuary’s fauna that suffers. Stellwagen Bank also contains sites of historical value for New Englanders, including the Portland, a steamship that sank in 1898. The NOAA report states that “contact from fishing gear has affected nearly every maritime heritage resource in the sanctuary.”
Recently, NOAA issued a draft management plan for the sanctuary, but it contains no meaningful actions to address the issues posed by commercial fishing and vessel traffic. It falls far short of what is necessary to protect 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 vessel speed regulations to limit underwater noise and harm to whales. If NOAA implements these regulations, Stellwagen Bank could serve as a refuge for Gulf of Maine cod, North Atlantic right whales, and humpbacks, as well as other fauna.
The protection of the sanctuary is vital for all Americans. Research shows that significant, enforceable protections for at least 30 percent of global lands and waters by 2030 will be essential to fight the climate crisis and stop the current marine mass extinction. The Biden administration has embraced this goal through the America the Beautiful initiative, which aims to significantly protect 30 percent of US lands and waters by 2030.
Leaders may count places like Stellwagen Bank toward this goal, but the percentage of US waters labeled as “protected” is irrelevant if those protections are not enforced and do not produce the intended conservation outcomes. In celebrating these areas of low protection as victories, leaders only let down themselves, youth, and the ocean.
Strengthening the management plan for Stellwagen Bank will reaffirm the Biden administration’s commitment to protecting the ocean and will set the stage for more bold, regenerative ocean policies. It’s a step in the right direction for Americans, the ocean, and young people like me who are inheriting this planet.
Isha Sangani is a member of Harvard College’s class of 2024 and an intern at the National Ocean Protection Coalition. She is a featured speaker at the June 8 UN World Oceans Day. She can be found on Instagram @ishapaintsfish.