The Gulf of Maine

What is the Gulf of Maine?
The Gulf of Maine is a semi-enclosed sea in it's own right. It is bounded by the hook of Cape Cod to the south, the Bay of Fundy to the north, and George's Bank, one of the world's greatest fishing grounds extending 200 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. With seven major rivers pouring 250 billion gallons of freshwater into the Gulf each year, and the world's highest recorded tides in the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf is one of the most biologically productive bodies of water in the world. The Gulf includes breeding sites for endangered seabirds and marine mammals, as well as a globally significant plankton population which sustains an ecologically complex and diverse food chain.

How and when did the Gulf of Maine come to be shaped the way it is?
In the grand time scale of geology, the Gulf of Maine as we now know it is just a baby, barely 4,000 years old! Back 430 million years ago, the greater Gulf of Maine region was part of one super-continent called Pangea. Over several hundreds of millions of years, a series of mountain building periods formed the granite bedrock that dominates our region. Then, the breakup of Pangea about 190 million years ago created what is known as rift valleys, for example what became known as the Bay of Fundy.

About 15 million years ago, the Gulf region was exposed as dry land subject to exposure and erosion for thousands of years.

Everything changed dramatically between 20,000 and 13,000 years ago when a mile-thick glacial sheet advanced and retreated over the landscape, scouring out softer rocks to create the deep Jordans, Wilkinsons, and Browns basins (1). The glaciers also deposited sediments to form landmasses we know today as the drumlins of Boston Harbor, the moraines of Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard just south of the Gulf, and Georges and Browns Banks.

As the glaciers melted in their final retreat, they released huge amounts of freshwater which scoured out river beds and flowed down the Northeast Channel, that great sluice at the mouth of the Gulf of Maine between the banks which serves as the primary pathway to the open Atlantic. Then the sea began to rise, and rise, and rise high enough that it covered the banks and flooded the valleys. All the while, the land began a slow process of rebound as it was released from all the weight of the glaciers, a process that is still occurring today (2).

A changing region
The Gulf of Maine has long been one of the world's most fertile fishing grounds. Its cold waters are rich in plankton which sustains the base of a complex food chain supporting species ranging from filter-feeding blue mussels to the endangered Right Whale and everything in between. So thick were these waters with sea life that early fisherman claimed one could walk from ship to shore atop schools of fish without falling in. Lobsters, too, were so plentiful they were considered poor-man's food, fit only for servants and prisoners. Indeed, the Gulf of Maine's human population developed and grew as a region because of the very richness of its waters.

Things are changing though. Starting in the second half of the twentieth century, communities along the rim of the Gulf began facing dramatic changes in their traditional seafaring culture. Many fisheries have been exhausted, including the great cod fishery, which is now severely limited, causing people to explore alternatives with great creativity and resilience. As a result, new fisheries have emerged from previously unmarketed species. Aquaculture farms are sprouting up in many bays and coves. The Internet is giving the economy an added boost. And tourism, the world's fastest growing industry, has hit the scene on a grand scale. The Gulf of Maine, now more than ever, is of immense value for New England, Canada, and the world.

The lure of nature-based tourism brings more and more people to the Gulf's coast, its islands, beaches, and salt marshes. Both in this region and the world over, ecotourism and outdoor recreation are increasing at a rate faster than any other form of tourism. Tourists and outdoor enthusiasts, by their sheer numbers, have the potential to cause the greatest ecological crisis or the greatest conservation opportunity for the Gulf of Maine.




All photos on this page by Natalie Springuel.