Hakai Magazine

divers observe shipwreck at Stellwagen Bank, Massachusetts
There are an estimated 200 shipwrecks lost in the dark, cold waters of Stellwagen Bank, Massachusetts, not far from Boston’s harbor. The sunken wrecks attract fish, which in turn attract fishermen, but fishing nets and metal scallop dredges can easily snag on and damage the irreplaceable vessels. Photo courtesy of WHOI

Loose Lips Save Sunken Ships

They used to keep historical shipwrecks hidden. Now, a marine sanctuary is trying a new tactic: radical honesty.

Authored by

by Laura Trethewey

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The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is a busy place. Less than 35 kilometers offshore from Boston’s harbor, the waters are a rich fishing ground, a whale migration route, a shipping channel, and a diving locale. Overseeing the sanctuary, which sits at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, falls to deputy superintendent Ben Haskell, the superintendent, 14 support staff, and two boats. Access to MarineTraffic.com also helps. One day in late April 2017, Haskell was checking the website and noticed 70 boats crammed into the northwestern corner of the sanctuary, moving back and forth in a tight configuration. What the hell is going on, he wondered.

Word had got out about a productive patch of scallops in Stellwagen, and when the season opened, the commercial fishing fleet pounced. Smaller coastal boats took to the water, each one dragging a 3.5-meter-wide scallop dredge behind it. So did longer offshore vessels towing two side-by-side dredges, spanning nearly 10 meters. Over the coming weeks, the armada raked an area of seafloor equal to the size of Boston. Sleeping in shifts, the crews worked nonstop, shucking thousands of scallops released from the dredge in a great clattering whoosh on the wet decks.

Watching this all play out, Haskell’s first concern was safety. “They were going back and forth, north and south, basically just barely missing each other,” he recalls. Vessels could collide and dredges could snag on each other and toss men overboard or capsize a vessel. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Haskell’s next concern, and the most prescient it turned out, was the underwater museum of modern and historical wrecks on that particular stretch of seafloor. There are an estimated 200 shipwrecks lost in the dark, cold waters of Stellwagen Bank. The majority are 20th-century fishing vessels, followed by 19th-century schooners that once carried coal or granite.

The coal they transported powered America’s industrial revolution, the granite built its rising cities, and the fishing boats fed and employed New England’s growing middle class. The most iconic shipwreck is the Portland: an opulent steamship that ran as an overnight ferry and sank in the eponymously named Portland Gale of 1898 with possibly 200 passengers and crew on board. Known as New England’s Titanic, the Portland was a luxurious ship with cherry wood–paneled staterooms and a domed skylight. Its sinking heralded the end of wooden sidewheel paddle steamships and ushered in the transition to steel hulls and propellers.

wreck of steamship Portland

The walking beam from the once-luxurious Portland steamship now provides a home for anemones, sponges, and other marine creatures on Stellwagen Bank, Massachusetts, where the vessel sank in a fierce 1898 gale. Photo courtesy of WHOI

Scallop dredges are heavy, metal contraptions that can plow right through a rotting shipwreck. The fishermen are often completely unaware they’ve just destroyed an irreplaceable artifact of New England’s cultural heritage. However, scallops are big business in these parts, selling between US $20 and $30 per half-kilo dockside, second only to lobster. Haskell had no authority to close the fishery. After the scallop season ended, he went out to assess the damage. Towing a side-scan sonar beneath the surface, the survey revealed a sepia-tinted snapshot of the seafloor. The view was not pretty. One modern shipwreck, North Star, was decimated, its remains dragged off in four directions. That was the moment Haskell realized something needed to change.

Scallop dredging, along with the broader bottom-trawling industry, targets marine life by dragging heavy gear along the seabed. Each year, this fishery rakes the world’s continental shelves, covering an estimated area equal to the size of Brazil, India, and the second-largest country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, combined. For decades, marine scientists have warned that bottom trawling destroys marine habitats. Less publicized has been the impact on underwater cultural heritage, even though it’s clear that fishermen have long dredged history along with fish.

In the 18th century, fishermen pulled up so many well-preserved bowls from a Roman wreck off Whitstable on England’s southeast coast, they dubbed the area Pudding Pan Rock—for the way their wives put those bowls to use. In 1877, a French fisherman dredged up a bronze ram, decorated with Medusa’s infamous snake hair, and sent it to a foundry to melt down. As industrial fishing fleets have pushed farther and deeper offshore, the impact on underwater heritage can only have gotten worse—and a growing body of work has started to document the damage.

Shipwrecks are a sort of siren song for fishermen: they can be a draw or a danger depending on the type of gear used. After a ship sinks, it creates marine habitat where none might otherwise exist. For years, the Stellwagen sanctuary staff followed the federal policy of keeping shipwreck coordinates secret to discourage divers from looting artifacts. But the local fishermen always knew where most of the wrecks were.

Mystery collier

Near the Portland lies a mystery shipwreck, thought to be a late-19th century or early-20th century collier, a type of coal-carrying sailing vessel. Photo courtesy of WHOI

“The fishermen gave them names, like we had the bronze wreck or the iron wreck, or you know, there was Pete’s Wreck, who was just some guy named Pete Jorgensen who lost his gear there sometime in the 1960s,” says Frank Mirarchi, who fished Stellwagen Bank and the surrounding waters for 50 years before retiring in 2015 when his knees gave out.

Mirarchi insists that fishermen never want to hit a wreck. Back in the late 1960s, before the rise of sophisticated navigational systems that allowed you to tag hazards, he snagged a wreck himself. “One of the scariest things that we could do as fishermen in those days was get hung up on a wreck,” he recalls. He was 25 kilometers offshore when the trawl snagged and snapped with the sound of a bomb exploding. In the recoil, his boat swayed dangerously.

Most captains would obviously want to avoid such a costly and dangerous situation, but the sheer number of nets draped on Stellwagen wrecks indicates that some are willing to risk it. “Every shipwreck that we know about in Stellwagen has some form of impact from fishing gear,” says Pete DeCola, the sanctuary superintendent.

Prohibiting fishing was never part of the sanctuary’s mandate. Legally, passing a fishing ban in America’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist seems unlikely. Haskell and his staff already feel wary, as government representatives, approaching boats on the water. Plus, both Haskell and DeCola say fishing is culturally ingrained and the industry holds a lot of power in the region. But what they could do is work with fishermen by lifting the long-standing policy of shielding shipwreck locations.

In 2018, the year following the scallop-dredging debacle, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries set stricter catch limits, while the marine sanctuary launched a pilot program that released coordinates for four shipwrecks in a fishery bulletin.

Over the coming years, the Shipwreck Avoidance Pilot Program would disclose more locations and get help installing a geofence around the wrecks in Stellwagen. When a vessel crossed the geofence, a warning popped up on the vessel’s monitoring system: “Captain, your vessel has entered a shipwreck avoidance area … NOAA requests that you keep your gear at least 400 feet [122 meters] away.”

Meanwhile, the sanctuary embarked on a collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to document iconic Stellwagen shipwrecks. A decade had passed since the last survey of the Portland. WHOI maritime archaeologist Calvin Mires wanted to assess its status, and marine biologist Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser was keen to study its marine life. Over the summers of 2019 and 2020, the team conducted two surveys, one of the Portland and of the coal schooners the Frank A. Palmer and the Louise B. Crary that collided in 1902 and sank as one intertwined wreck.

sonar image of schooners Frank A. Palmer and Louise B. Crary

A sonar image from a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution survey reveals the coal schooners Frank A. Palmer and Louise B. Crary, still entwined on the seafloor after sinking in a collision in 1902. Photo courtesy of WHOI

It’s a constant conversation as we’re doing those surveys,” Meyer-Kaiser says. Floating above the shipwrecks, the two researchers watched as two remotely operated vehicles filmed cinema-quality footage. “Calvin is pointing out bits of the [ship’s] walking beam, and I’m telling him about the anemones and the sponges, and the conversation evolves from there as we notice things.”

The most obvious observation: snagged fishing gear, lots of it. Since the last survey in 2010, the Portland had a new net draped across its port bow, displacing a cluster of fluffy, white-plumed anemones. Snagged gill nets near a torn railing on the ship’s fantail stern looked like the work of a fisherman who tried and failed to retrieve his gear.

As Mires and Meyer-Kaiser dug deeper into the footage, they realized that fishing impacts shaped shipwreck habitat. The more intact parts of the ships supported more marine life. The wavering, snagged nets could ensnare fish forever. The filter-feeding sponges and anemones settled on higher, undamaged perches and overhangs—all the better to catch a meal drifting on the current. Wolffish and cusk hid in the wrecks’ cracks and crevasses. Here was a key revelation that all parties could support: shipwrecks create richer habitats that in turn boost fishing conditions, but only as long as the wreck is preserved.

Five years later, the pilot program has evolved into policy at Stellwagen. The sanctuary staff plan to reveal more wrecks, even though Haskell hasn’t witnessed a behavior shift among the fishing community just yet. Despite the warnings, scallop dredges and trawlers regularly encroach on the 122-meter buffer zones around wrecks. In 2022, North Star was struck again, too. But Haskell is optimistic about the conversations he’s having with fishermen. His phone number pops up in the warning message and concerned fishermen ring him up, worried they’ve done something illegal. “I explain that it’s a voluntary program and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I understand,’ and they’re relieved,” Haskell says. During the 2023 scallop fishery, over 1,000 warning messages went out to nearly 100 vessels. It will take some time to reverse years of secrecy, but a conversation around protecting New England’s shipwrecks has now begun.