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This past September, in waters about 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the federal government established the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The 4913 square mile enclosure is home to deep-sea corals, schools of fish, sharks, sea birds, tuna, and whales, forming one of the richest ocean ecosystems on the planet.

In establishing the national monument, the Obama Administration cited a recent scientific assessment that warned of stress and damage from climate change to the Cape Cod ecosystem. The federal designation bans fishing, drilling, and other commercial activities in the monument area.

President Obama exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The act has been used by 16 subsequent presidents to create national monuments from public lands in order to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features.

The Administration’s decision was a victory for many environmentalists, who have pushed for stronger federal protections of coastal waters and fisheries. Their goal has not only been to protect endangered areas, but to create living laboratories where the impacts of climate change can be studied in isolation over the long term, thereby providing data that can inform policy.

“Protecting these marine habitats is imperative to preserving marine species and accurately studying the effects of climate change on the Gulf of Maine’s ecosystem without having to factor human influence,” says Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts.

Peter Austere, a professor emeritus of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and researcher at the Mystic Aquarium, helped gather information for the White House prior to the monument’s establishment.

“These places are fragile, the species that live within them are fragile – deep sea coral, sponges with low ecological resilience – this monument is the only place to date that has protection in perpetuity.”

Concerns from fisheries managers

Yet despite the scientific justification, the Obama Administration’s decision raised concern not only among New England’s fishing industry, but also among federally appointed managers tasked with protecting those fisheries.

By restricting commercial fishing, Rachel Feeney, of the New England Fisheries Management Council, fears the long-term effects that monument designation may indirectly pose to marine species. Facing limits on where they can fish, the fishing industry may react by intensifying their activities in other areas.

“Whenever you’re put on notice that you may be limited down the road, there’s a potential that those communities whose profit margins may decrease in the future may overfish a certain stock now,” says Feeney. Whether New England’s fishermen would do that is unclear, but the monument decision may set up an incentive for overfishing.

One of eight regional councils established by federal legislation in 1976, the New England Fisheries Management Council is responsible for conserving and managing fishery resources off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce appoints members to the councils, which operate independent of the federal government. The Councils receive federal funding but are technically not federal agencies.

As a marine scientist, Austere recognizes the difficulty in regulating ocean habitats. “The nation was built on marine resources, which continue to be foundational to our coastal economies. But nowhere does it say that the entire ocean shelf is open for fishing all the time.”

Protecting new areas

The New England Fisheries Management Council is currently considering their next step. “We haven’t seen any economic analysis regarding the establishment of the monument, but we’re gathering information,” Feeney says. “It’s a slower and longer term issue – so it’s yet to be determined.”

At the time the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was established, the New England Fisheries Management Council was already working on amending fishing rules to protect deep sea coral areas.

Michelle Bachman, who heads the New England Fisheries Management Council’s coral action initiative explains, “Right now from what we can tell most of the fishing effort is much more shallow than the coral communities. It doesn’t seem like there are bottom fishing in areas where there’s coral ecosystems.”

The Council plans to introduce their coral amendment at the council meeting in Newport, Rhode Island from November 15th-17th.

Though differing in their position on the new national monument, the Conservation Law Foundation is working with the New England Fisheries Management Council to close other important biological fishing areas in the Gulf of Maine and to make its populations more stable—specifically, on Cashes Ledge.

The unique underwater mountain range located 80 miles off the coast of Massachusetts’s Cape Ann was originally included in the monument proposal, but the White House took Cashes Ledge off the table in deference to the fishing industry.

Yet Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation warns that the New England Fisheries Management Council could change their minds at any time about Cashes Ledge and other efforts to protect marine areas. “Their goal is to produce seafood not marine biodiversity.”

See also:

Maine lobsters maturing faster and at smaller sizes due to warmer waters and climate change