NOAA's national marine sanctuary offices and visitor centers are currently closed to the public, and in accordance with Executive Order 13991 - Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask Wearing, all individuals in NOAA-managed areas are required to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on mask-wearing and maintaining social distances. Sanctuary waters remain open for responsible use in accordance with CDC guidance, U.S. Coast Guard requirements, and local regulations. More information on the response from NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries can be found on


Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary?

The sanctuary is an 842-square-mile (638-square-nautical-mile) marine protected area at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. The sanctuary boundary is somewhat rectangular, stretching from three miles southeast of Cape Ann to three miles north of Cape Cod. The sanctuary is about 25 miles east of Boston, and lies totally within federal waters. It encompasses all of Stellwagen and Tillies Banks, and the southern portion of Jeffreys Ledge.


What is Stellwagen Bank?

Stellwagen Bank is an underwater plateau at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, formed by the same processes that formed outer Cape Cod. As the ice sheets of the last Great Ice Age retreated, they left behind sand, gravel and rock. At one point in time (perhaps 12,000 years ago), Stellwagen Bank was actually above sea level, but as sea level rose and the glaciers continued to melt, the bank gradually submerged beneath the sea.


How did Stellwagen Bank get its name?

Stellwagen Bank was named for the person who first mapped it in its entirety. Knowledge of shallow areas at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay had been around for many centuries. In fact, maps from the early 1700s showed an area called Barren Bank at what is now known as the southwest corner of the bank. Middle Bank (covering a good portion of Stellwagen Bank) was drawn on several 19th century maps. In 1854, Henry S. Stellwagen, a Lieutenant of the US Navy, on loan to the Coast Survey, was sent to Massachusetts with the task of mapping potential lighthouse positions. In the course of his work, he realized he had discovered a feature not represented on any official maps. Over the course of several months in 1854, he mapped the bank and its surrounding waters. The following year an official map was released detailing this feature. The U.S. Coast Survey, recognizing the importance of the find and the work of Henry Stellwagen, named the geological feature after the man who officially documented the underwater feature.


Why did the U.S. Coast Survey consider Stellwagen Bank an important discovery?

In the 1800s, mariners did not have radar, sonar and other tools that are now part of standard equipment on ocean-going ships. Back then, captains had their crews take soundings by lowering a weighted line into the water to determine depth. The discovery of the bank was significant because it provided an underwater feature that would warn ships that they had left the greater Gulf of Maine and were approaching the more dangerous waters of Boston Harbor. This was especially important in foggy days and at night.


Who is Gerry E. Studds?

Gerry E. Studds served as a Representative in Congress for the Massachusetts 12th District for 24 years. During his terms, Cong. Studds (D-MA) was a staunch supporter of marine protection programs and was a leader in the effort to create and build the National Marine Sanctuary Program. When he retired, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) proposed that the sanctuary Cong. Studds had worked so hard to see established be renamed in his honor. Both the House and Senate agreed and the rest is history.


Why was the area considered special and deemed worthy of sanctuary designation?

For centuries, Stellwagen Bank has proved to be a rich and productive fishing ground, particularly for groundfish species like cod, haddock and flounder. Fishermen have also been able to catch giant Atlantic bluefin tuna, large sharks, and large schools of herring. During the second half of the 20th century, the area gained fame as a whale watching destination. The World Wildlife Fund named Cape Cod one of the ten top whale watching sites in the world (but since there is little land-based whale watching on the Cape, we like to think that the true Top Ten site on the list is Stellwagen Bank).


Why do the whales come to Stellwagen Bank?

Stellwagen Bank serves as a sumptuous smorgasbord for marine mammals. Of particular importance is the wealth of sand lance (also known as sand eels) that burrow into the coarse sands of the bank. Schools of these fatty (calorie-rich) fish provide excellent nutrition for the whales (as well as larger fish and sea birds) that feed in these waters all summer.


What species of marine mammals can be found in the sanctuary?

Some 17 species have been seen at one time or another, but there are several species that are regular visitors. These species are: humpback whale, fin whale, minke whale, northern right whale, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, harbor porpoise, pilot whale, and harbor seal.


Does sanctuary designation mean that boats can't enter the area?

No, the sanctuary is open to all forms of vessels, from sailboats to the largest, ocean-going freighters. The sanctuary has established several regulations that prohibit certain activities, like sand and gravel mining, transferring petroleum products, and taking or harming marine mammals, birds and turtles, The sanctuary looks to protect the living and non-living resources located in the sanctuary, but attempts to support traditional uses of the ocean.


Is fishing allowed in the sanctuary?

Yes. Both commercial and recreational fishing are allowed in the sanctuary. The NOAA Fisheries Service with the New England Fishery Management Council manages fisheries in New England waters three to 200 nautical miles from shore. Some restrictions on fishing have been put in place by NOAA Fisheries that affect fishing in sanctuary waters, including rolling closures for groundfishing, catch limits for individual species, and a large, indefinite year-round closure in the Gulf of Maine.

Can the National Marine Sanctuary Program regulate fishing activities in the sanctuary?

No. Fishing is not an activity listed as subject to regulation in the sanctuary designation document.  Therefore, it cannot be regulated without amending the designation document.  Further, pursuant to the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA), the relevant fishery management council would be provided the opportunity to draft the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary fishery regulations to achieve the desired resource protection objective.  Any changes to the designation document would be narrowly constructed to address only the specific resource protection objective.  The input of the New England Fishery Management Council, NOAA Fisheries and fishing communities will be sought as the management plan review progresses, and especially as issues are considered that may have a bearing upon fishing activities.


Does the National Marine Sanctuary Program have authority under the NMSA to regulate fishing activities?

Yes. Section 304(a)(5) of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) provides authority to issue regulations as may be necessary to protect the resources and qualities for which individual sanctuaries were designated. This would include regulations for certain fishing activities if determined necessary to protect sanctuary resources or qualities. The NMSA has specific requirements as to how any sanctuary fishing regulations are to be developed. Specifically, the NMSA requires NOAA to provide the relevant fishery management councils the opportunity to prepare draft sanctuary fishing regulations. In doing so, the fishery management council is to use as guidance the national standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to the extent the standards are consistent and compatible with the goals and objectives of the sanctuary. The scope of a sanctuary's regulatory authority is further defined in its designation document.


What is a designation document and how does it guide what activities can be regulated?

At the time of designation of a sanctuary, NOAA lists the activities that may be subject to regulation in the designation document and issues regulations addressing what activities will be regulated. Both the list of activities subject to regulation, as well as the regulations themselves can be amended as long as NOAA follows the legal and administrative processes (e.g., the NMSA, National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act) required. To change a designation document, NOAA must follow the applicable procedures and requirements for designating a sanctuary. This includes consulting with relevant federal and state agencies, and Congress, and providing opportunity for the public to give input. Thus, to regulate fishing activities it must follow the rigorous legal and administrative processes to change a term of designation. Further, NOAA must also provide the relevant fishery management council the opportunity to draft such sanctuary fishing regulations, as described above.



When did Stellwagen Bank become a National Marine Sanctuary?

Legislation to reauthorize the National Marine Sanctuaries Act was passed in 1992 and signed by President George Bush on November 4th. Part of the legislation was the establishment of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The area had been nominated by the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Coastal Studies in the mid-1980s and had been undergoing the traditional site evaluation process when the legislation moved the site to full designation.


Under what part of the government is the sanctuary administered?

The Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is one of 13 sites managed under the National Marine Sanctuary Program. This office is located within the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce. Other services in NOAA that you probably recognize are the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.



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