Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
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Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Regional Context
National Program
Establishment of the SBNMS
Significance of the Resources

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is an area of approximately 638 square nautical miles (2181 square kilometers; 842 square miles) of ocean waters, and the submerged lands thereunder, over and around Stellwagen Bank and other submerged features, off the coast of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

A combination of physical and oceanographic characteristics in this area result in cycles of biological productivity that support exceptionally large and diverse populations of fish, seasonal populations of cetaceans (including several classified as endangered) and seabirds. The proximity to land and accessibility of this biologically rich and diverse system have attracted high levels of human activity, principally, commercial fishing and whalewatching.

The boundary of the Sanctuary encompasses the entirety of Stellwagen Bank; Tillies Bank to the northeast; and southern portions of Jeffreys Ledge to the north of Stellwagen Bank (Figure 1). The Sanctuary is entirely within federal waters, i.e., beyond the Exterior Line of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (G.L.C. 132A, s. 13). Segments of the Sanctuary boundary are coterminous with the seaward boundaries of three Ocean Sanctuaries designated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under G.L.C. 132A, ss. 13-16 and 18. The northwestern border of the National Marine Sanctuary is contiguous with the North Shore Ocean Sanctuary and the southern border coincides with segments of both the Cape Cod Bay Ocean Sanctuary and the Cape Cod Ocean Sanctuary.

The western border of the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary is approximately 25 nautical miles east of Boston, Massachusetts. It is about three miles north-northwest of Race Point (Provincetown) and three miles southeast of Cape Ann (Gloucester), Massachusetts. The Sanctuary boundary is identified by the following coordinates, indicating the most northeast, southeast, southwest, west-northwest, and north-northwest points: 4245'59.83"N x 7013'01.77"W (NE); 4205'35.51"N x 7002'08.14"W (SE); 4207'44.89"N x 7028'15.44"W; (SW); 4232'53.52"N x 7035'52.38"W (WNW); and 4239'04.08"N x 7030'11.29"W (NNW).


Regional Context

Stellwagen Bank is located in the southwestern Gulf of Maine, which is formed by the bight of the northwest Atlantic coastline between Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Cape Sable, Nova Scotia (Figure 1). Massachusetts Bay is the southwest corner of the Gulf, embraced by Cape Ann and Cape Cod. Stellwagen Bank, a shallow, glacially-deposited, primarily sandy feature, curving in a southeast-to-northwest direction for almost 20 miles, lies at the Bay's eastern edge and partially blocks its mouth. Water depths over the Bank range from 61 to 120 feet. Surrounding waters are more than 300 feet and seaward of the Bank the seafloor slopes to depths of 600 feet or more.

Figure 1. Chart of Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (U.S. Geological Survey, Woods Hole, Massachusetts).


The National Program

The National Marine Sanctuary Program was established by Title III of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, (16 U.S.C. 1431 et seq.) as amended. The Marine Sanctuary Act authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to designate discrete marine areas of special national significance as national marine sanctuaries. The purpose is to promote comprehensive long-term management of their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, research, educational, or aesthetic values. National marine sanctuaries may be designated in those areas of coastal and ocean waters, the Great Lakes and their connecting waters, and submerged lands over which the United State exercises jurisdiction, consistent with international law. National marine sanctuaries are built around the existence of distinctive natural and cultural resources whose protection and beneficial use require comprehensive planning and management. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administers the National Marine Sanctuary Program through the Sanctuaries and Reserves Division (SRD), in the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM).


Establishment of the Stellwagen Bank
National Marine Sanctuary

On October 7, 1992, Congress passed legislation reauthorizing and amending Title III of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA). This legislation was signed into law on November 4, 1992 (P.L. 102-587). Section 2202 of that law designates the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Further, it establishes a Sanctuary boundary; prohibits the exploration for and mining of sand and gravel and other minerals in the Sanctuary; requires consultation with the Secretary of Commerce by Federal agencies proposing agency actions in the vicinity of the Sanctuary that may affect Sanctuary resources; authorizes funding levels for fiscal years 1993 and 1994; and directs the Secretary of Commerce to consider the establishment of a satellite Sanctuary office.

The designation of Stellwagen Bank as the nation's twelfth (and New England's first) National Marine Sanctuary was the culmination of over a decade of effort. Stellwagen Bank was first nominated for consideration as a national marine sanctuary in 1982 by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts and the Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. The following year NOAA added Stellwagen Bank to its "Site Evaluation List" from which NOAA chooses ocean areas as active candidates for designation as national marine sanctuaries.

NOAA elevated the Stellwagen Bank proposal to Active Candidate status on April 19, 1989 (54 FR 15787). This was done in response to a requirement in the 1988 amendments to the National Marine Sanctuary Program that a prospectus on the Stellwagen Bank proposal be submitted to Congress by September 30, 1990 (P.L. 100-627, s. 205(b)(1)). NOAA commenced gathering public comment and prepared the Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Management Plan and the Prospectus to Congress. These were published on February 8, 1991, initiating a 60-day public comment period and a 45-day Congressional review period. During the comment period, a series of public hearings was held, 860 written comments were submitted, and petitions signed by more than 20,000 persons supporting designation of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary were received by NOAA (Sanctuaries and Reserves Division, 1993).


Significance of the Resources

Stellwagen Bank and surrounding areas provide one of the richest, most productive marine environments in the United States. The Stellwagen Bank area sustains a large variety of marine mammals and fishery resources which constitute an important ecological and economic resource for the region. Due to its accessibility, the bank is used extensively for whale watching, commercial and recreational fishing, and recreational boating.

Stellwagen Bank's topography allows for cold, nutrient-rich bottom water to surface and mix with sunlight, causing suitable conditions for plankton production. It is this plankton-rich water that attracts many species of animals to the Stellwagen Bank area.

The Stellwagen Bank area is recognized as one of the most important areas in the North Atlantic for whales. serve as an important feeding and nursery grounds for many species of marine mammals including large and small whale species, including humpbacks, fins, minkes, northern rights, pilots, and orcas. Seasonal visitors also include white-sided and white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoises, and bottlenose, common, and striped dolphins. Harbor seals, gray seals, and leatherback sea turtles make rare visits to the Bank. Over 30 species of coastal and pelagic seabirds, from the common herring gull to the endangered Roseate tern can be spotted at Stellwagen Bank.

The high biological productivity of the bank also sustains commercially and recreationally valuable fishery resources.


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Page last modified by the Stellwagen Web team on
July 23, 2004

Revised July 23, 2004 by
National Ocean Service | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | U.S. Department of Commerce