Atlantic Marine Monument Protections Weakened by Trump Proclamation
Conservation Law Foundation is suing administration, claiming monument’s modification is illegal
June 18, 2020
Ancient corals sway as currents push by, dolphin pods stream across the surface, and a plethora of undiscovered underwater species scurry through deep canyons and up seamounts. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, about 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, is teeming with life.
“It was like swimming through Dr. Seuss’s garden,” said Peter Auster, a senior research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium and an emeritus research professor at the University of Connecticut. “From the very first research trip out to the canyons and later to the seamounts, it was obvious these were special places.”
The monument — the only one of its kind in the Atlantic Ocean — was designated by the Obama administration in 2016 after a strong case for its creation was presented by Auster and his colleague Scott Kraus, an affiliate scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, among others.
“The monument region included a diversity of communities, from shallow to deep, much like you see different life zones climbing up a mountain,” Auster said. “From the surface to the deep-sea floor, all these things were packed together in a very tight space, so we wrap up this incredible example of our natural heritage.”
This heritage is under attack from the Trump administration, which issued a proclamation June 5 that reopens the area to commercial fishing.
Commercial fishing groups had lobbied for the change, claiming the restrictions had cost the industry millions of dollars. Critics of Obama’s decision to use the Antiquities Act to create the Atlantic marine monument have argued that the move circumvented federal law established in the 1970s to regulate fisheries.
Trump’s recent proclamation removed the prohibition on commercial fishing and allowed management of fisheries within the marine monument to revert back to the New England Fishery Management Council.
“Under the last administration, commercial fishermen and Maine lobstermen were suddenly informed that nearly 5,000 square miles of ocean would be closed to commercial fishing,” Trump said during a recent visit to Bangor, Maine. “This action was deeply unfair.”
However, Trump fails to note that fishing is, in fact, still allowed.
“There were six to eight permit holders that were fishing for crab and lobster in the area. It was lightly fished, and all of those permit holders were granted a moratorium to continue fishing for seven years,” said Kelly Kryc, director of conservation policy and leadership at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston. “So, the fishing that was happening in the monument is still happening.
“Recreational fishing is also allowed in the monument, and in response to fishermen’s concerns, the original boundary of the monument was reduced to allow access to the more fertile fishing grounds. So, the monument that exists today is smaller than that which was proposed, and that was in direct response to concerns from the fishing community.”
Kryc also noted that the government’s own data shows that the designation hasn’t had a negative impact on fishing quotas and productivity.
“The government’s data shows that since the monument was designated in 2016, the fish landings for pelagic species have actually gone up since the monument’s designation,” she said. “They haven’t gone down as was predicted by the fishing industry. Now, it’s really important to be clear that’s not because of the monument’s designation, but the designation hasn’t adversely impacted the fishing community.”
Preserving areas of the ocean may be even more critical as the world battles a climate crisis, which could have a more devastating impact on the commercial fishing industry than 4,913 square miles of protected ocean.
For context, consider that the entire Atlantic Ocean spans 41.1 million miles, making the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument a mere 0.012 percent of its entire expanse.
“As sea levels rise, the natural infrastructure and protection that is conferred from healthy ecosystems provide an economic benefit to coastal communities,” Kryc said. “Now, the monument is a little bit too far out for that, but what is needed is a network of marine protected areas, not a monument in name only.”
There are four marine monuments in the Pacific Islands region, but the Atlantic marine monument off the coast of New England remains the lone bastion along the Eastern Seaboard.
To combat the recent repeal, the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) is suing the Trump administration, claiming the modification of the monument is illegal.
“It is illegal for any president to revoke or modify a prior president’s monument proclamation because he has no authority to do so,” Peter Shelley, senior counsel at CLF, wrote in an email. “The Antiquities Act, where Congress authorized presidents to create monuments and protect objects of historic and scientific interest in the monument, does not confer the power to undo the monument actions of prior presidents. Only Congress can do that after a monument has been created.”
In a June 17 press release, Bob Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents commercial fishermen, noted that the inclusion of prohibitions against commercial fishing was controversial throughout the process of creating the monument.
As for the CLF lawsuit, he wrote, “The creation of an Atlantic Marine monument without appropriate stakeholder consultation has been a centerpiece of the Conservation Law Foundation’s (CLF) political agenda for over five years.”
In the meantime, the fate of the monument remains in a tenuous balance.
“Every time a submersible goes down, they discover a new species,” Kryc said. “These are demonstrably special places with extraordinary amount of biodiversity and things that are magical and awe-inspiring and beautiful, and there’s value in protecting them just because they exist, but we can take it a step further and make the links that are necessary for other people to understand the economic value and the resilience value of it, the job creation value of it. So, all this recent action is a disappointing outcome.”
The New England Aquarium has an online form that can be used to send a pre-written letter calling for the protections to be reinstated.