July 16, 2014

The ship on the US commemorative stamp pictured above is the Charles W. Morgan, a whaling vessel that was built in 1841 and sailed the global ocean for 80 years hunting giant cetaceans. The ship is the world’s oldest surviving commercial vessel and had been under restoration for 6 years until it was re-launched in 2013. Only the USS Constitution, the 1797 Navy frigate afloat at Pier 1 in Charlestown, is older.

This past weekend, the Charles W. Morgan sailed around Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Massachusetts — not as a commercial interest to plunder the ocean, but as a beacon of ocean conservation. The ship held a lively crew of historians, scientists, authors and artists who were aboard to draw attention to the sanctuary’s efforts to study, understand and protect endangered whales. Dr. Sylvia Earle counted herself among the crew, as the ship sailed the area famous for its whale populations.

The Stellwagen Bank lies off the coast of Massachusetts and is one of 14 sites in the National Marine Sanctuary Program. According to NOAA, who manages the system:

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.

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. 

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Today, it’s interesting to note that, while whaling isn’t allowed at the Stellwagen Bank, fishing still is. One might hope that the National Marine Sanctuary Program could simply outlaw fishing in these waters — the same waters that have seen population crashes of multiple fish, e.g. Atlantic Cod. However, the Program is subject to regulation by its designation document, which doesn’t list “fishing” as subject to regulation. In order to get this document amended to include “fishing” as regulated, the relevant “fisheries management council” would have to be consulted. Unfortunately, as we saw with Greenpeace’s effort in the Bering Sea, these councils can prevent important environmental protections from coming about. That fight, still pushes on.

We can see hope in the rebirth of the Charles W. Morgan. She sails on after 173 years in the chilly New England waters, this time, to raise awareness about the imminent need to increase protection of the ocean habitat. That’s a step in the right direction.

For more on the Charles W. Morgan‘s restoration check out this video from the Mystic Seaport Museum of America and the Sea.

One Comment

  • Liessi from BC says:

    This is way out there but … I just hope the whales who are old enough to remember this ship don’t panic or, worse yet, assume that all the whaling has stopped.

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