New Report Sets the Stage for Community Input on Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Management Plan

By Elizabeth Weinberg

February 2020

Since 1992, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has protected a complex, biologically diverse region within the Gulf of Maine that supports many human communities. The 842-square-mile sanctuary encompasses important feeding grounds for humpback whales, North Atlantic right whales, and other marine mammals, as well as feeding and migratory areas for seabirds, fish, and invertebrates. Its biological productivity supports commercial fishing and whale watching industries, while also providing opportunities for tourism and recreation.

A new condition report written by a panel of expert scientists along with sanctuary staff and community partners evaluates the state of the sanctuary, setting the stage for a review of the sanctuary’s management plan.

Sanctuary Under Pressure

Photo: Jeremy Winn

Though sanctuary designation has led to a greater understanding and appreciation of the ecosystem, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary faces increasing pressure from human activities, climate change, and other forces. The population in the greater Boston area is growing, increasing visitation to the sanctuary and driving an increased demand for seafood. Commercial shipping lanes go through and near the sanctuary, and vessel traffic in and out of the Port of Boston is growing with international trade. In more recent years, a whale watching industry has flourished, bringing people from around the world to Gloucester, Boston, Plymouth, Barnstable, Provincetown, and Newburyport to depart on half-day trips to see feeding humpback whales.

The new condition report uses the best available science and recent data to assess the sanctuary’s resources in light of these changing and growing pressures. It serves as an update to the sanctuary’s first condition report, which was published in 2007. This updated report also evaluates the benefits people derive from the sanctuary’s natural and cultural resources, known as ecosystem services. The report indicates that pressures on the sanctuary are increasing, mostly from a growing coastal population. Response efforts undertaken by sanctuary staff to date have been very helpful, but more efforts are needed to address every threat.

The condition report “is an important document that provides critical insight into the health of the sanctuary’s complex resources,” says Heather Knowles, chair of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. “At a time when there are many threats to the unique sanctuary resources – threats both environmental and due to human use – this document serves as a road map for science-driven management approaches that will benefit both the resources and the community.”

The State of the Sanctuary

Photo: NOAA/Whale Center of New England

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is located entirely offshore, which protects it from some of the stressors facing other marine protected areas. The condition report notes that in general, water quality is “good/fair” – runoff from urban areas and agriculture do not seem to be adversely impacting sanctuary ecosystems. Still, more research is necessary to understand the impacts of microplastics and emerging contaminants in sanctuary waters.

The sanctuary also continues to provide services that benefit human communities: the sanctuary hosts recreation opportunities like whale watching and boating, supports sustainable approaches to commercial and recreational fishing, protects maritime heritage resources, and serves as a hub for science and education.

However, the sanctuary’s proximity to the greater Boston area also puts it at risk. Habitats, animals like whales and fish, and maritime heritage resources like shipwrecks are all impacted by human activities. Fishing gear also poses an entanglement risk for whales and other marine mammals, and has impacted historic shipwreck sites. Noise from vessels, including shipping and fishing vessels and recreational boats, reduces the range over which whales and other animals can communicate. Vessels may also collide with large animals like the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale; these collisions can be fatal.

a person tagging a humpback whale
Sanctuary research helps managers better understand the condition of and pressures on the animals and ecosystems of Stellwagen Bank. Here, a researcher attaches a data tag to a humpback whale with a suction cup in what is the world’s longest-running whale tagging program. Photo: NOAA, under NOAA Fisheries permit #775-1600-10

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has been at the forefront of researching and raising awareness of many of the threats impacting marine organisms. The sanctuary has collaborated with partners to understand impacts of ship noise on whales, and to support disentanglement efforts, and has worked to protect highly endangered North Atlantic right whales through the development of tools like the Whale Alert app. Sanctuary researchers have also gained insights into the health of the Stellwagen Bank ecosystem through studies on sand lance and seabirds. This condition report points to areas where more research and mitigation may be necessary.

A Sanctuary in a Changing Ocean

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

In addition to local threats, Stellwagen Bank faces pressures from an ocean that is transforming as a result of climate change. The Gulf of Maine, where the sanctuary is located, is warming faster than 99 percent of the rest of the global ocean. This warming ocean is impacting animal life cycles and shifting the distribution of plankton, fish, whales, and other organisms in the Gulf of Maine.

small schooling fish near the seafloor
Climate change may impact the distribution of foundational species like sand lance. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

These shifts could be especially important in the case of key prey species like sand lance and copepods. These species form the base of food webs, and impacts to their abundance may, in turn, impact the health and distribution of top predators like commercial fishes, whales, seals, and sharks. The new condition report points to a need to implement more robust monitoring of climate change impacts in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. According to research coordinator Dr. David Wiley, the sanctuary is the perfect place to conduct research into climate change and its ecosystem impacts. “The sanctuary’s location in the southern Gulf of Maine suggests we could be ‘ground zero’ for climate related changes,” he says. “We already have databases on many species and processes going back decades. Maintaining and expanding the projects supplying these data should be a priority.”

The People's Sanctuary

Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The data and assessments within this condition report will provide the basis for the revisionof the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary management plan. Each national marine sanctuary has a management plan, which outlines the sanctuary’s goals and objectives and sets priorities. “Monitoring of sanctuary conditions and sanctuary management go hand in hand. Management must be adaptive to be effective, and condition reports help us understand changes within the sanctuary,” says Ben Haskell, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary deputy superintendent.

“Based on this condition report, we know that the next management plan will need to address, among other things, climate change, water quality monitoring, the effects of underwater noise, and a better understanding of the maritime cultural landscape,” says Pete DeCola, sanctuary superintendent.

The release of the condition report kicks off the sanctuary’s management plan revision process. A public comment period is open through April 10, and will include public meetings to gather input from the communities that rely on Stellwagen Bank. “We are looking forward to engaging with the public,” says DeCola. “They will help us identify other important issues and develop the action plans we need to address these challenges.”

How to Comment

Photo: Laura Howes

Whether you live in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary area or only visit occasionally, we want to hear from you – and there are many ways to weigh in on the management plan revision process.

For those local to Massachusetts, the sanctuary will be holding a series of public meetings:

Wednesday, March 11, 6:30-8 p.m.
New England Aquarium
1 Central Wharf
Boston, MA 02110

Thursday, March 12, 6:30-8 p.m.
Maritime Gloucester
23 Harbor Loop
Gloucester, MA 01930

Buzzards Bay
Wednesday, March 18, 6:30-8 p.m.
Massachusetts Maritime Academy
101 Academy Drive
Buzzards Bay, MA 02532

Written comments will also be accepted through the April 10, 2020, deadline. You can submit your comments online at or by mail to Pete DeCola, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 175 Edward Foster Rd., Scituate, MA 02066.

Elizabeth Weinberg is the digital outreach coordinator and writer for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.