Frequently Asked Questions

shearwater seabirds fighting each other in the water
Cory's shearwater and a great shearwater appear to be involved in a lively conversation. Photo: Peter Flood

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, Massachusetts to three miles north of Cape Cod. The sanctuary is about 21 miles east of Boston, and lies completely within federal waters. It encompasses all of Stellwagen and Tillies banks, as well as the southern portion of Jeffreys Ledge.

Stellwagen Bank is an underwater plateau at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, formed by the same geological processes that formed outer Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As the ice sheets of the last great ice age retreated, they left behind sand, gravel and rock. At one point in time (approximately 12,000 years ago), Stellwagen Bank was above sea level, but as the glaciers continued to melt and sea level rose, the bank was gradually submerged beneath the sea. Today, water depths to the top of the bank range from approximately 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters).

Stellwagen Bank was named for the person who first mapped it in its entirety. Knowledge of relatively shallow areas (100 feet) at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay had been around for many years. 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 also drawn on several 19th century maps. In 1854, Henry S. Stellwagen, a Lieutenant of the U.S. 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 this information and the work of Henry Stellwagen, named the geological feature after the man who officially documented this underwater feature.

In the 1800s, mariners did not have radar, sonar and other tools that are now 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 and take position fixes from the stars. 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 during inclement weather and at night.

The bank is important in terms of the biology, geology, and oceanography of the region. This underwater plateau directs water currents, creates internal waves, and forces upwelling of deeper, nutrient-rich water onto the sunlit surface of the bank. The mix of habitat types -- mud, sand, gravel, boulder reefs, and granite ledges on and around the bank -- attract a variety of creatures, including whales and commercially important fish species.

Gerry E. Studds served as a representative in Congress for the Massachusetts 12th District for 24 years. During his terms, Rep. Studds (D-MA) was a staunch supporter of marine protection programs and a leader in the effort to create and build the National Marine Sanctuary System. His efforts included incorporating the designation of a sanctuary at Stellwagen Bank within the reauthorization of the national marine sanctuary program in 1992. When Studds retired, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) proposed that the sanctuary Rep. Studds had worked so hard to see established be renamed in his honor. Both the House and Senate agreed, and the formal name for the sanctuary became Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, although the shorter, original name is maintained for everyday use.

The rich marine resources of Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays and Stellwagen Bank helped support coastal Native American peoples for thousands of years, and in recent centuries, the area has proved to be a productive fishing ground for New England vessels, particularly for groundfish species like cod, haddock, and flounder. Fishermen also captured giant Atlantic bluefin tuna, sharks, and large schools of herring on or near the bank. During the second half of the 20th century, the area gained fame as a whale watching destination. Several international and national polls list Stellwagen Bank and Cape Cod as a world top ten whale watching site (but since there is little land-based whale watching on the Cape, Stellwagen Bank is the ultimate destination).

Stellwagen Bank serves as a sumptuous smorgasbord for marine mammals. Of particular importance is the abundance 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. In addition, the upwelling of nutrient-rich water and local currents create rich supplies of copepods, an important food source lower on the food web, but also a target of filter-feeding right whales.

Some 22 different species of marine mammals have been seen at one time or another, but there are several species that are regular visitors. These species include: humpback whales, fin whales, North Atlantic right whales, sei whales, minke whales, pilot whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, common dolphins, harbor porpoises, harbor seals, and gray seals.

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. Speeds of certain vessels are restricted by law in right whale seasonal management areas, and voluntary speed limits are in place for temporary zones when multiple right whales are spotted. Any vessel of any size is encouraged to follow these guidelines. All vessels must stay 500 yards away from right whales. The sanctuary's primary goal is to protect the living and non-living resources located within its boundaries, but traditional uses are allowed when compatible with the primary goal of resource protection.

Yes. Both commercial and recreational fishing are allowed in the sanctuary. NOAA Fisheries, along with the New England Fishery Management Council, manages fisheries in New England waters from 3 - 200 nautical miles from shore. Some restrictions on fishing have been put in place by NOAA Fisheries that affect fishing in sanctuary waters, including the Western Gulf of Maine Groundfish Closure (which overlaps the eastern side of the sanctuary), rolling closures for groundfishing, restrictions in Right Whale Seasonal Management Areas that overlap the sanctuary, as well as number and size catch limits for individual species.

No. Fisheries management is not 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 would be sought in the development of an updated management plan, especially where issues bearing upon fishing activities are being considered.

Yes. Section 304(a)(5) of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) provides authority to issue regulations as 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.

At the time of sanctuary designation, NOAA lists the activities that may be subject to regulation in the designation document and issues regulations addressing those activities. Both the list of activities subject to regulation, as well as the regulations themselves can be amended as long as NOAA follows the required legal administrative processes (e.g., the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act). 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.

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 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.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is one of 15 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments managed under NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. This office is located within the National Ocean Service line office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce. Other well-known line offices in NOAA include the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.