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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. 

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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:

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.

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Anniversary Event of the Healthy Seas Foundation Celebrates a Decade of Marine Protection and Industry-Wide Partnerships




Healthy Seas

September 20, 2023

Croatia and Slovenia — The Healthy Seas Foundation, a pioneering organization dedicated to marine conservation and education, commemorated its 10-year anniversary with a remarkable three-day event held from September 4th to 6th, 2023. The event brought together a diverse array of partners, collaborators, journalists, and environmental enthusiasts who have collectively contributed to the foundation’s journey towards cleaner seas.

A Decade of Transformation

The anniversary event was a testament to the remarkable achievements of the Healthy Seas Foundation over the past decade. Participants gathered from across the globe to reflect on the foundation’s impactful initiatives, discuss future strategies, and reinforce current partnerships. The event underscored the deep interlinkage between marine conservation and diverse industries, illustrating the power of collaboration in fostering positive change.

Empowering Presentations and Collaborative Networking

Day 1 featured insightful presentations that delved into the history and future aspirations of the Healthy Seas Foundation. Attendees engaged in discussions that underscored the importance of sustainable practices promoting circularity across various industries. The day concluded with a celebratory dinner, providing a platform for networking and idea exchange among partners and collaborators.

Nurturing Tomorrow’s Advocates

Day 2 saw the foundation’s commitment to education and community engagement in action. Collaborating with local school children, the event fostered environmental awareness through interactive activities. An inspiring photo exhibition and a captivating virtual reality experience transported participants into the heart of marine ecosystems, emphasizing the significance of cleaning and safeguarding these vital ecosystems for future generations.

The day also featured a presentation and joint artwork session with Bracenet, a valued partner of the Healthy Seas Foundation. Bracenet showcased the diverse applications of the nets recovered by Healthy Seas, highlighting their transformation from abandoned ghost nets to purposeful creations.

The afternoon of Day 2 witnessed a ghost net retrieval mission led by Ghost Divers from around the world. These volunteer divers demonstrated their dedication to ocean cleanup by removing abandoned fishing nets, a significant threat to marine life, from the seas.

Embracing Circularity: Aquafil’s Sustainable Innovation

Day 3 showcased the Healthy Seas Foundation’s vital partnership with Aquafil. Participants witnessed the collaborative efforts to give discarded nets and nylon waste new life, an embodiment of environmental stewardship and innovation. Through this partnership, some of the fishing nets recovered by Healthy Seas are mixed together with other nylon waste and transformed into ECONYL® regenerated nylon, advancing circular economy across industries.

Celebrating a Decade of Growth

Over the last 10 years, the Healthy Seas Foundation has experienced substantial growth, expanding from 3 partners in 2013 to a network of 150 partners today. The initiative has progressed from 20 activities to an impressive 228, with volunteers increasing from 15 to a formidable force of 350. What initially began in 3 countries has now extended its impactful operations to 20 countries.

Looking Ahead

As the Healthy Seas Foundation envisions the future, the anniversary event serves as a reminder of the remarkable progress of the past decade and the potential for even greater impact in the years to come.

For media inquiries, interviews, or additional information, please contact:

Samara Croci, Communications Manager, Healthy Seas Foundation +39 3314436962

About Healthy Seas Foundation:

Healthy Seas is an international non-profit organisation whose mission is to remove waste from the seas, in particular fishing nets, for the purpose of creating healthier seas and recycling marine litter into textile products. The recovered fishing nets will be transformed and regenerated by Aquafil, together with other nylon waste, into ECONYL® yarn, a high-quality raw material used to create new products, such as socks, swimwear, sportswear, or carpets. Since its founding in 2013, Healthy Seas has collected over 905 tons of fishing nets and other marine litter with the help of volunteer divers and fishers.

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