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Protecting Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary’s Shipwrecks: An Opportunity for Collaboration



By Ariel Silverman
Header image courtesy of Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

Header image: Divers in the sanctuary may encounter areas with bountiful marine life. Here cod swim under the remains of a shipwreck covered with frilled anemones and other attached invertebrates

When policymakers face the challenge of protecting irreplaceable marine archeological sites, the fishing industry and conservation interests are often at odds. But they don’t have to be.

A diverse stakeholder group–including divers, historians, and fisherman–has united to protect the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s shipwrecks. They aim to preserve the irreplaceable historic resources in the Sanctuary while protecting fishermen and their gear from danger and damage. To accomplish these goals, NOAA is piloting the Shipwreck Avoidance Program (SAP). SAP is an innovative program whose purpose is to encourage commercial and recreational fishermen to voluntarily avoid disclosed shipwreck locations. 

Through a SAP initiative, NOAA published to the public the locations of 11 historic shipwrecks, reversing its previous policy of non-disclosure. In return, NOAA officials have requested that fishermen voluntarily avoid the designated sites. During the pilot phase, officials will monitor voluntary compliance to determine SAP’s effectiveness.

Fishing Near Wrecks Offers Possibilities for Profit and Danger

Sanctuary archaeologists have located 47 historic shipwrecks in Stellwagen Bank. Historical records indicate that at least 200 more historic and modern vessels that sank within sanctuary boundaries lie somewhere beneath the surface. 

The wrecks share Sanctuary waters with a fleet of commercial and recreational fishing vessels. Commercial fishing, including trawling and scallop dredging, is allowed in most of the Sanctuary and is regulated by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Fishing captains have found that trawling close to these wrecks can bring in a profitable catch of many species of fish that find refuge nearby. But, these benefits come with risks to the crew and their equipment.

Frank Mirarchi, a retired trawler fisherman and Sanctuary Advisory Council Member, supports SAP. “I have lost two nets and done considerable damage to several others throughout my career by encountering random pieces of wreckage scattered on the seabed,” he said. “Under poor weather conditions, entangled gear can capsize a boat, jeopardizing the crew’s safety,” he added.  

Protecting Irreplaceable Dive Sites

Many wrecks have been damaged or destroyed by commercial fishing gear. John Perry Fish is a sonographer and the co-discoverer of the Portland steamship, the sanctuary’s most iconic historic wreck and a memorial site for the 192 passengers and crew lost when it sank. He explained that, “Trawl nets and floats can become ensnared on wrecks like the Portland and remain at the site for decades.”

A 3D digital model of the Portland shipwreck shows that large portions of the bow are draped in fishing nets and lines. Photo courtesy of WHOI/MITech/SBNMS.

Wreck divers, like fishermen, have good reason to protect sites from further damage. Before SAP, shipwreck locations were not disclosed to the public because officials were concerned divers would remove or displace artifacts. This concern has greatly diminished with the help of divers’ advocate Heather Knowles, co-founder of Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions, Inc. and Chair of the Sanctuary Advisory Council.

Knowles believes that divers are “fundamentally a conservation constituency.” She said that wreck divers want to see the sites up close and rarely disturb them. “After divers explore a wreck,” she added, “they want to know more about its history and see that it is protected.” Knowles is confident that SAP will help fishermen avoid hazardous sites while allowing more wreck divers to bring shipwrecks’ stories to the public. 

Preserving Non-Renewable Archeological and Ecological Resources

In addition to fishermen and divers, other marine sanctuary stakeholders are in support of SAP because of shipwrecks’ importance to archeological research and biodiversity.  

Sanctuary marine archaeologist Dr. Calvin Mires, an experienced wreck diver, believes that the public will care more about preserving shipwrecks when they better understand New England’s maritime cultural landscapes. Historic shipwrecks are “non-renewable resources” because they cannot be replaced once they are destroyed. While archeologists can learn about historical ship building techniques by studying a ship’s exterior, experts can achieve a better understanding of New England’s 19th century economy by studying a ship’s cargo. Mires believes the sites also share a deeply relatable human story. Ships like the Portland were “traveling hotels” in which crew, staff, and travelers lived and worked closely together. In many ways, New England’s historic maritime transportation industry lessened the strict socioeconomic hierarchy and rampant racial inequality of that time period: the industry offered high wages and interdependent working environments onboard. 

Shipwrecks provide shelter for a variety of species. This side scan sonar image shows a school of fish (cod and pollock) congregating by the wreck of the steamship Portland.  Photo by SBNMS and Applied Signal Technologies.

Additionally, NOAA officials are required by The National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) and The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to protect the sanctuary’s archaeological resources, including the submerged vessels. Conservationists and marine researchers also support protection because wrecks provide critical habitat and refuge for diverse marine life rarely seen elsewhere in the Stellwagen Bank. 

Heather Knowles believes that SAP also creates an opportunity for citizen science. Many wreck divers, she said, “are investing in sophisticated underwater cameras. As more sites are disclosed to the public and explored, these photographs can be shared with marine archeologists, shipwreck ecologists, and the public, helping to grow scientific knowledge about the wrecks.” 

Shipwreck Management to Encourage Voluntary Compliance

NOAA officials have concluded that a non-regulatory voluntary compliance program such as SAP is the best way to protect our nation’s maritime heritage while sustaining the fishing and wreck diving industries. Ben Haskell, Deputy Superintendent of the Sanctuary and SAP manager, explained that “This program gives the fishermen the opportunity to avoid the dangers associated with their gear interacting with shipwrecks while protecting these historic resources without the implementation of an added layer of regulation.”

NOAA officials currently utilize a combination of two existing satellite-based vessel tracking systems—the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) and the Automatic Identification System (AIS). VMS is required on all commercial trawl and dredge vessels and requires that the captains report their positions every 30 to 60 minutes. “The problem with this system,” noted Haskell, “is that position data do not reveal fine-scale positioning and whether a vessel has gone around or over a shipwreck site.” AIS is a vessel collision avoidance program that the US Coast Guard requires of all vessels over 20 m/65 ft. “The advantage of AIS is that it provides vessel positions every five minutes,” added Haskell, “but its disadvantage is that the system is not used on all fishing vessels since many are smaller than 20 m/65 ft. However, several smaller fishing vessels use AIS due to its safety benefits.”

Automatic Identification System data showing the tracks of four commercial scallop dredge vessels that fished in the vicinity of the four wrecks (yellow dots) on southern Stellwagen Bank in 2020. Photo courtesy of Michael Thompson/SBNMS.

The future of SAP and the sanctuary’s shipwrecks is still uncertain. If the program successfully encourages voluntary avoidance, NOAA officials will likely disclose the locations of more sites. By working together toward a shared goal, stakeholders can preserve these irreplaceable resources while sustaining fishing and wreck diving in sanctuary waters. 

For more information on SAP or to report a shipwreck location contact: ben.haskell@noaa.gov.

To view a list of the recently disclosed sanctuary shipwreck sites, click here.

Ariel Silverman is an ocean sustainability journalist and policy volunteer with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. She is currently on a leave of absence from her studies at Harvard University.


Conservation Through Genetics: Introducing the Marine Genome Project




Photos courtesy of Marine Genome Project
The image shows a tissue sample of red algae after homogenization to release the DNA from the supernantent

The Marine Genome Project (MGP) is a nonprofit organization founded by two avid divers Daniel Ortega and David Mulé with a desire to promote ocean conservation. MGP’s mission is to collect genetic information from marine organisms with the intention of creating science-based educational resources.  MGP plans on achieving this by creating an open source system to aid in preservation projects that spread  awareness about the fragility of marine species and the ecosystems they inhabit. 

Daniel Ortega Cave Diving in Tulum.

Daniel Ortega is in his early twenties. He grew up spending endless hours begging his parents to let him learn how to scuba dive. Like many children figure out at a young age, if he was persistent in bugging his parents, they would eventually give in to the demands. Even if it was just to get him to finally shut up about scuba diving. Daniel got certified at the age of 12 and has been diving ever since, he’s been working full time in the diving industry for 4 years. He currently holds numerous recreational, teaching, and technical diving qualifications including GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1. Daniel has been passionately dedicated to protecting the underwater environment from a young age, and this is what sparked his desire to start The Marine Genome Project (MGP) which is dedicated to protecting the ocean and the species that live within for years to come.

Daniel couldn’t have started The Marine Genome Project without his friend and fellow GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1 teammate, Dave Mulé. As one of the founders of The Marine Genome Project, Dave’s work has been crucial in guiding its behind-the-scenes infrastructure. As a practicing lawyer and avid diver, his talents have been well suited to building MGP’s support structures. 

David Mulé.

The duo have talked about what their future in diving would look like for years. They tossed around the idea of everything from opening their own dive shop, to buying a vessel to turn into a research diving vessel. While years ago they didn’t have the idea that you see today, one thing was for sure: it was going to involve diving and protecting their favorite place on earth, the ocean.

After a few years, the team settled on starting MGP. Daniel noticed two common factors that he felt were lacking in some of the other major organizations dedicated to ocean conservation.  First, was the lack of transparency in the conducted research and how the data was being used to help marine ecosystems. Daniel is a firm believer in the philosophy that if you can’t understand the solution, you can’t understand the problem.  The second factor was the lack of community involvement. Many major organizations are not efficient at involving the community in their work.  MGP believes in actively involving communities in every step of its mission and scientific process. 

MGP wants everybody to understand and appreciate how genetics can be used as a vital tool for marine conservation.  Although science may seem confusing to many, it does not have to be that way. Genetics in simple terms is the study of genes and genetic variation of organisms. The field of genetics is often confusing and misunderstood by those who are not trained in the field; but, as Daniel would say “if I can do it, you can do it.”

To allow our communities to better participate, MGP started a page on its website called the “Science Spot.” The page breaks down the scientific methods and procedures used by our research team into bite sized chunks. The team wanted to lower the barrier of entry into science and marine preservation work. On this page people can learn everything from what genetic information is to how it is collected. 

Let’s talk about the geeky side of our mission. DNA is the instructions determining what an organism might look like, what it might eat, how long it might live, and other vital information. DNA is made up of a five carbon sugar phosphate group with a nitrogenous base made up of nucleotides. The nucleotides in DNA are A,T,G,C. These Nucleotides pair together to form a base pair. The nucleotides follow rules, such as, A pairs only to T and G pairs only to C, except in RNA then A pairs to U which substitutes in place of T. The ordered reading of these base pairs is what allows us to see how an organism’s cell would function. 

The photo shows a run of DNA extracted from marine algae, in a visualization process called Gel Electrophoresis. Sometimes the runs don’t turn out great, as extracting viable DNA from plants is notoriously difficult as seen by the smearing and damaged DNA.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what DNA is, we need to learn how to visualize it. Visualizing DNA used to be extremely difficult. The machines would take up half a room, run for months on end, and cost exorbitant amounts of money. With the passing of time, things have changed; whole genomes can be sequenced in the field and with devices as big as your mobile phone. One that we use is a Nanopore sequencer. It works by using a flow cell with many little microscopic holes in it which sits in an electro-resistant membrane attached to electrodes. When these nucleotides pass through the nanopore membrane, the current in the membrane is distrusted, creating an electrical reading. This reading is then translated to the corresponding nucleotides. 

This information can then be read and compared to known sequences to detect changes in nucleotide sequences. This can help researchers better understand the effects of external environmental stressors on the heritability of genes among other uses. With the collected information MGP is able to provide data supporting potential detrimental damage to marine environments, with possible avenues that can be pressured for solutions.

With the fast pace changes we are seeing in science and technology, we now have more tools at our fingertips for protecting our underwater world. At the end of the day, the idea behind MGP was to bring a mutual respect and love for the environment to the general public. When we can respect and love something we are more willing to protect it. The Marine Genome Project team would like to encourage everybody to get involved in your community in protecting the sites that we cherish everyday, so others can cherish the sites tomorrow. 

For more information see: Marine Genome Project (MGP)

The eventual goal for MGP is to move into collecting tissue samples of marine vertebrates such as the French Grunts seen above. These vertebrate species can give us valuable insights into the overall health of the ecosystem, and provide possible tracking metrics for measuring changes in the ecosystem due to external stressors.
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