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Historic Use

The Stellwagen Bank area has seen active vessel traffic for hundreds of years, with the plethora of ships passing through these waters illustrating the history of New England   The evolution in the size, design and capacity of fishing boats, cargo vessels and passenger ships has paralleled the economic development and population growth of the region.

The Pilgrims came to the Plimoth Colony seeking religious freedom, but also the economic potential of bountiful fish stocks in the local waters.  Stellwagen Bank and offshore banks, including Georges and Grand, drew fishing vessels from the ports of Boston , Salem , Beverly , Marblehead and Gloucester .  Today, commercial fishing vessels from Maine to New Jersey regularly visit these waters, while legions of recreational fishermen also try their hand at cod, tuna and other species.  For more information about historic fishing in the Stellwagen Bank area, visit our sections on Maritime History, the "History of Marine Animal Populations" research program and our pages on commercial fishing and recreational fishing.

Whaling, once an industry on Cape Cod , has been exchanged for whale watching.  Truro and Provincetown were whaling towns in the 17th and 18th centuries – first with shore-based harvesting of stranded animals and then later hunting from boats.  By 1760, some 12 whaling ships called Provincetown their home.  Now, whale watching companies depart from Provincetown and Barnstable on Cape Cod, while other companies base their operations in Plymouth, Boston, Gloucester and Newburyport.  For more information on whaling, visit our Maritime History page, while whale watching data can be found in its own special section.

Passenger vessels have carried the wealthy and privileged as well as the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Immigration in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries brought families from England , Ireland , and many other European countries to these shores.  Cargo vessels have been bringing goods from around the world to Boston .  Travel between the colonies, and later the states, was possible via vessels that ranged up and down the coast, with a passage over Stellwagen Bank a necessity for any Boston-bound ship.  For more information about passenger traffic, visit our Maritime History section.  For in depth material about the wreck of one of New England’s most famous passenger vessels, visit our shipwreck entry on the coastal steamship Portland

Today, sanctuary researchers are studying the amount and type of vessel traffic that passes through the region, and how that traffic might be better managed to protect marine mammals in sanctuary waters.  Visit our web page on whale research for more information on large vessel traffic and the sanctuary’s successful proposal to shift the Boston shipping lanes.  The Vessel Use Survey (undertaken in 1994-95 and 2001-02) shows patterns in human use of the sanctuary during the past decade.



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