Brian Skerry: The Time Is Now to Protect Cashes Ledge
April 26, 2013
[NOTE: This article appeared in _Dive News Network_ and has since been cycled out from the server, but I enjoyed doing the project and it is of value, so I salvaged my draft and am posting it here. Because it is a draft, it may not be exactly as the article appeared in the publication.]
Documenting sea life in the Gulf of Maine is a labor of love for National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, who grew up diving in cold North Atlantic waters. Skerry is currently collaborating with the Conservation Law Foundation on a five-year project called the New England Ocean Odyssey that draws attention to the diversity and fragility of New England’s marine ecosystems.
One of the richest areas Skerry is currently recording with the NEOO is an undersea mountain range that may cease to exist as an ecosystem if its current protections from bottom-trawling are lifted. Photographing wildlife there now may be a race against time.
Cashes Ledge can be compared to a large, fertile forest teeming with wildlife. As with many seamounts, its steep ridges and deep basins create an underwater landscape ideal for animals to hide, hunt, and spawn, while the confluence of currents around it mix nutrient-dense water at depths reached by the sun.
On his initial dive at Cashes, Skerry recalls being “blown away’ by the immense undulating tapestries of golden kelp so thick as to create a false bottom, rising eight to nine feet vertically and then extending horizontally for another fifteen. Sheltering within the kelp are cunner, wolffish, and cod with a distinct red coloration. The richness of the indigenous ecosystem attracts larger predators like migrating bluefin tuna, sharks, and whales.
However lush and attractive the undersea landscape might be, a dive at Cashes Ledge, eighty miles east of Cape Ann, is not for novices. It requires a great deal of planning. To contend with the waves, Skerry says, requires “a substantial boat that can withstand the weather, a crew used to working with divers offshore,” and the luck of “a calm day.” Swimming against the powerful current with either double tanks or a large single tank takes experience and a lot of stamina. And divers should have a realistic and humble regard for safety. Skerry wears a DUI CLX 450 drysuit as protection against the frigid waters, and carries strobes, a safety sausage, a Dive Alert alarm whistle, and radios in canisters in case of drifting.
The perplexity of the currents would not be enough to protect the Ledge from a determined modern industrial bottom-trawler, however. Cashes Ledge is currently of interest to trawling companies, desperately eager, in an increasingly overfished ocean, to put pressure on the National Marine Fisheries Service to lift the restrictions that have kept the Ledge’s ecosystem intact for so long.
Skerry compares a bottom-trawled ocean floor to a clear-cut forest, one trawl causing damage that can take decades from which to recover. Skerry, who remembers diving in the late 1970s and early 1980s into thick schools of pollock and cod just off Cape Ann, has the benefit of perspective to realize that the heavily fished waters in the Gulf of Maine are “a pale skeleton of what they once were,” points out that fragile ecosystems like Cashes Ledge are an example of what the ocean once was, and with protections in place, could eventually be again.
Skerry encourages divers to stay in communication with their representatives regarding marine conservation issues. Even though “fishing lobbies are powerful and organized, and politicians only historically hear from fishermen,” Skerry points out divers have an eyewitness perspective that makes them powerful and effective “ambassadors of the sea.” “Give voice to what you see,” he urges.