Since 2006, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have designated more than 330,000 square miles of America’s oceans as marine national monuments, protecting them from all industrial activities. These actions have created permanent refuges—roughly equivalent in size to the area of Texas and Oklahoma combined—for countless species of fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and invertebrates. And yet, for all the conservation value the world has gained from these monuments, there remains a glaring omission. To date, not one square mile of federal waters adjacent to the continental United States shares this permanent protection from all industrial activities.
The famed Western author Wallace Stegner once called the establishment of our system of national parks “the best idea [America] ever had.” Yet this brilliant idea has yet to adequately extend to our oceans. While 14 National Marine Sanctuaries encompass roughly 170,000 square miles of ocean space, none are what scientists consider “fully protected marine reserves,” where all extractive activities are prohibited. Some sanctuaries, such as the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Hawaii, are focused on protection of a single species, while many others allow commercial fishing and other industrial activities to continue within their boundaries.
Americans clearly have an appetite for establishing fully protected ocean parks. A Hart Research Associates survey conducted for the Center for American Progress in January 2016 found that 92 percent of respondents supported protecting “special marine areas such as parks and sanctuaries for whales, fish, and corals.” And although the current Congress has shown no willingness to establish new national parks, the American Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president broad discretion to protect these natural wonders as national monuments. Now, in the National Park Service’s centennial year, the time has come for President Obama to exercise this authority and establish a marine national monument in the waters of the continental United States for the first time.
Many places are ripe for this designation, but an area of underwater canyons and mountains about 150 miles east-southeast of Cape Cod—off the southern edge of Georges Bank—is a good place to start. Beneath these waters lie unimaginable wonders: Canyons plunge thousands of feet beneath the surface, steeper and deeper than the Grand Canyon, and four extinct underwater volcanoes—the only such features in the entire U.S. Atlantic Ocean—rise up from the seabed to heights taller than any mountain east of the Mississippi. These waters are home to both species of otherworldly form and function and forests of fragile deep-sea corals, some of which are estimated to be more than a thousand years old—more ancient than California’s giant sequoias. Dr. Peter Auster, a scientist with the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut who has studied this region for decades, describes his experience visiting these places in a submersible as “a stroll through Dr. Seuss’ garden.”
While this area is certainly breathtaking, it also provides a necessary home for endangered wildlife. Marine mammal expert Dr. Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium notes this area as a hotspot for marine mammal activity, including endangered sperm whales that forage in the deep canyons for squid and other food. He has witnessed schools of dolphins and porpoises numbering in the thousands stretching from horizon to horizon during aerial surveys he has done over the years.
A diverse group of stakeholders, including businesses, scientists, faith leaders, and environmental groups, has supported designation of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as a marine national monument, along with a site roughly a hundred miles to the northwest of the canyons known as Cashes Ledge. The canyons and seamounts proposal has been endorsed by the entirety of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, as well as more than 60 state legislators, more than 200 New England businesses, and 145 scientists. In addition, more than 150,000 Americans have sent letters and signed on to petitions supporting the designation.
Despite this outpouring of support, the proposed monument faces considerable opposition from some members of New England’s commercial fishing industry. Although the proposed area encompasses some of the least fished places in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of fishermen and their allies signed on to a letter to the president following a public meeting about the proposal held last September in Providence, Rhode Island. The signatories suggested a monument designation would “undermine the public and democratic processes that are now in place to manage these areas.”
In reality, all stakeholders have had ample opportunity to weigh in. Members of the Obama administration spent more than three hours listening to comments regarding the idea of designating a monument from both supporters and opponents of the proposal—including many fishermen—at an open public meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, in September 2015. In order to ensure all voices could be heard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has kept a comment portal open to written submissions for more than nine months and counting. Then, in March 2016, White House officials, including Acting Director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Christy Goldfuss, traveled to Massachusetts and Rhode Island to sit down in person with fishing industry leaders and other stakeholders.
Recently, at least in part in response to industry concerns, the Obama administration announced that Cashes Ledge, one of the most worthy sites for monument designation in the region, “is not being considered [for a monument designation] at this time.”
In contrast, the “democratic regulatory process” to which the fishing industry’s letter refers is in fact run by the New England Fishery Management Council, a body that has no authority to manage anything other than fisheries. It has no jurisdiction over other industrial uses such as oil and gas extraction, seabed mining, or cable laying, all of which would be expressly prohibited by a monument designation.
Furthermore, 16 of the 18 seats on the council are held by fishermen, fishing industry representatives, or state fisheries regulators. This means its decisions are made from a fisheries-first perspective. While members of the public are permitted to attend meetings and provide comments, the council has no mandate or incentive to consider alternate perspectives, such as biodiversity protection, in its decision-making. It cannot adequately represent the perspectives of all ocean stakeholders.
Some argue that it hasn’t even done a particularly good job managing one of its most iconic fisheries. According to NOAA’s “Status of Stocks 2015” report, New England has more species that are either overfished or currently subject to overfishing than any other region in the nation, many of which are part of the multispecies fishery—more commonly known as the groundfishery—which includes cod, haddock, and flounder. The population of the iconic Atlantic cod is at historically low levels despite 40 years of management. While the status quo of fisheries management has heavily depleted New England fisheries, fishermen there are not accustomed to being challenged over the use of these waters. Like our nation’s public lands, however, U.S. ocean waters belong to all Americans, and they must be managed to reflect Americans’ priorities—including conservation.
As our oceans become more heavily used and we come to understand more about the effects human activities have on marine ecosystems, marine conservation measures are now more essential than ever. Commercial fishing must remain a fundamental part of the fabric of New England’s coastal communities, but it cannot be the only priority.
This year, as the nation marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service and 110th anniversary of the American Antiquities Act, the time has come to look beyond our shores, beneath the waves, and bring America’s best idea home to the ocean waters.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.
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Director, Ocean Policy