Help Shape the Future of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

By Anne Smrcina

November 2021

Public comments sought for draft management plan; deadline Jan. 21, 2022

In 2022, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary celebrates its 30th anniversary. Over the course of three decades, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency that administers national marine sanctuaries, issued an original management plan after sanctuary designation in 1992 and an update in 2010. NOAA has released a draft plan to update management objectives and activities within Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and is asking for public input.

Entering a New Decade of Sanctuary Management

“As we move into our fourth decade, sanctuary staff now have a better understanding of the ecosystem and the resources within this special place, but also find new areas of concern, such as effects of climate change and ocean noise,” says Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Pete DeCola. “As is often the case, when we answer one question and begin to understand an issue, new questions arise.”

The draft management plan, developed with the assistance of the Sanctuary Advisory Council and other technical specialists, incorporates the latest scientific findings and sets out a strategic set of actions to better protect natural and heritage resources in the sanctuary.

Researchers in a rigid hulled inflatable boat view a diving humpback whale.
Knowledge gained from humpback whale tagging studies by sanctuary research teams leads to better protection programs. Photo: NOAA (NOAA Research Permit #605-1904)

Seeking Public Input

The public comment period begins on November 30 and will continue until Jan. 21, 2022. Virtual public meetings will take place on Jan. 11, 2022 at 6 p.m. and Jan. 12, 2022 at 3 p.m EST. Visit Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s website for more information about the meeting times and registration procedures, along with the various methods to submit comments.

“Creating a management plan is a community process, where stakeholders and the broader public hold important roles in helping the sanctuary fulfill its mission,” said DeCola. “Although the draft plan does not include any regulatory changes, it does offer 15 action plans that address both long-standing challenges in addition to more current issues.”

Great shearwater with satellite tag affixed to its back spreads its wings in preparation to take flight.
Researchers release a satellite-tagged great shearwater. Studies of seabirds may provide indications of ecosystem health. Photo: Steve De Neef.

A Wild Ocean Place Near an Urban World

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 842-square-miles of open water, east of Boston between Cape Ann and Cape Cod. Stellwagen Bank, the geographic feature at the center of the sanctuary, is a critical factor in forcing upwelling currents that bring nutrients to the surface, creating a productive ecosystem in the region.

Sanctuary waters attract a myriad of species, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, economically important groundfish and lobsters, and a wide variety of seabirds. The annual return of humpback whales makes Stellwagen Bank one of the world’s premier whale watching destinations. “The health of this ocean ecosystem is a driver for the local economy,” said DeCola. “But, the sanctuary and the wider ocean are undergoing significant changes,” he notes, pointing out that Gulf of Maine waters are warming faster than most of the world’s ocean, that right whale numbers continue to decline, and that other threats, like emerging contaminants are impacting water quality, and rising sound levels are threatening marine life.

Two scuba divers swim along the sides of a sanctuary shipwreck.
Sanctuary divers document a shipwreck that serves as a window into our maritime history. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

Fifteen Action Plans to Meet Management Goals

The management plan review process started with an examination of the current issues and threats to sanctuary resources and evaluated the extent to which the 2010 management plan met the sanctuary’s goals and objectives in the 2020 Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report. With that baseline, sanctuary staff along with members of the Sanctuary Advisory Council developed a set of 15 draft action plans that outline how the sanctuary can best meet outstanding needs by continuing successful programs or developing new initiatives. For example, draft action plans focus on climate change, sound and its effects on marine life, water quality and contaminants that may threaten ecosystem health, marine mammal protection, and vessel traffic. The document also provides guidance for education and outreach activities, maritime heritage, infrastructure, research, and intergovernmental coordination.

“The management plan review process is a way for us to examine where we have been and where we are going,” says DeCola. “But this is not an insular process. Public petitions helped create the sanctuary in 1992, public scoping helped guide the beginning of the management plan review process two years ago, and public comments will assist us in finalizing a plan that will guide sanctuary management for the next 10 years.”

Recreational fisher reels in a catch from the deck of a charter fishing boat.
Fishing, both recreational and commercial, has been an important economic contributor to the sanctuary’s coastal communities. Photo: Anne-Marie Runfola/NOAA

The 15 Draft Action Plans

  • Marine Mammal Protection
  • Seabird Research
  • Vessel Traffic
  • Maritime Heritage and Cultural Landscapes
  • Compatible Uses
  • Climate Change
  • Education and Outreach
  • Interagency/Intergovernmental Coordination
  • Sanctuary Advisory Council
  • Research and Monitoring
  • Soundscape
  • Water Quality Monitoring
  • Habitat
  • Ecosystem Services
  • Administration and Infrastructure Capacity

Anne Smrcina is the education coordinator for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.