Last week President Obama delivered a historic announcement at the global Our Ocean Conference, permanently protecting nearly 5,000 square miles of the North Atlantic as a national marine monument.  Formally titled Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, this swath of pristine ocean landscape located 130 miles off Cape Cod, just East of George’s Bank, is the first ever section of Atlantic Ocean to receive designation as a national monument and receive such extensive protections.  This announcement is made just two weeks following the President’s dramatic expansion of Hawaii’s remote marine protected areas, solidifying his environmental legacy.  This unprecedented victory for Atlantic marine life and the communities who depend on the Gulf of Maine’s resources will hopefully drive future policy in the U.S. and abroad and put a focus on protecting marine hotspots.  Though there is much controversy over the economic impacts this protected area will have on the local economy, as well as why Cashes Ledge was not considered to be included, the overall message the President is sending is clear: “If we’re going to leave our children with oceans like the ones that were let to us, then we’re going to have to…act boldly”.


What is the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument?

ne-canyons-and-seamountsConservationists and scientists alike, and for that matter the fisherman too, all describe the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts as natural wonder comparable in beauty and ecological importance to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Redwood Forest. Many who have visited the Seamounts and Canyons use language echoing Thoreau’s romantic, awestruck impression of Walden, when describing the unique underwater wonderland.  Brad Sewall of National Resources Defense Council colorfully describes the underwater scenery as, “plummeting canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, undersea mountains taller than anything East of the Rockies, and blossoming corals…as ancient as the redwoods.”  The 4,913 square miles of incredible biodiversity and unique underwater geography not seen anywhere else in the Atlantic Ocean, truly earns the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts their title as a marine national monument.

Seamounts are simply underwater mountain formations, and canyons are exactly the same as canyons found on land but submerged underwater.  The steep mountain and canyon walls allows an upwelling to form at various locations around the seamounts, resulting in cold, nutrient rich water to continuously circulate to the surface.  This stream of nutrient rich food draws an immense number of migratory and year round residents to the canyons and seamounts.  Endangered whales, fish species, turtles, seabirds, sharks and a host of other organisms uses this habitat as a refuge where food is plentiful and the geography provides natural protection.  Additionally, this location is one of very few deep sea coral reefs found along the Atlantic coast. The corals that grow on the seamounts and canyons are extremely fragile and are therefore more susceptible to death when trawling ships or other commercial fishing boats use the area.  This hotspot of biodiversity allows marine life to thrive within the monument boundaries and in many other parts of the Gulf of Maine.

When the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was officially declared, it did not simply mean that all fishing and oil operations would be halted immediately and that the area would be 100% off limits.  As always, compromises had to be made and this results in significantly increased protection of the area, but within limits proposed by the fishing industry.  An immediate consequence of this designation as a national monument, all oil and gas exploration and drilling is banned. Most commercial fishing in the area is to be stopped within a 60-day grace period, with the exception of the lobster and red crab fishing industry which is allowed to continue for the next 7 years.  Large trawlers, the main threat to the health of the ecosystem, will not be permitted to fish inside the protected area. These stringent regulations and near designation as a no fishing zone is aimed to help combat the unrelenting threats of climate change and ocean acidification.


Benefits to Ecosystem:

NOAA Ocean Explorer: Okeanos Explorer: Northeast U.S. Canyons 20In order to appreciate the dramatic effect on the Gulf of Maine this protected area is projected to have, the current conditions of the North Atlantic water chemistry and ecosystem must be addressed.  Due to its unique location in the northern hemisphere and intersection of currents, the Gulf of Maine is currently warming at a rate three times the global average, this means that the waters off New England are warming faster than 99.9% of the world.  Additionally, fish stocks have been bouncing between unstable and plummeting since the 1990’s, and as ocean acidification begins to take a firm grip in the Gulf of Maine stronger protections were the only imaginable action to effectively combat so many changes happening at such high rates.  Without federally protected marine area in the North Atlantic, it is likely that current conditions would only continue to deteriorate and the once bountiful resources would dry up.

Instead of just protecting individual species which are teetering on endangerment or even extinction, the protection of an entire section of healthy ecosystem protects species from further decline and prevents the physical ecosystem from being degraded due to increased human activity.  Not only is a near pristine patch of ocean being preserved for future generations to revel in the beauty and astonishing resilience of nature, especially visible in our oceans, but more immediate effects to fish stocks and other populations will be evident.  Its location right off iconic fishing grounds, George’s Bank, though seemingly detrimental to the local fishing economy will actually lead to increases in fish stocks over the long run, as it provides a place for important target species to rebound.  Fish do not recognize the human drawn borders in the ocean, so once the fish stocks are repopulated in and around the national monument, the fish will inevitably spill out into fishable areas and will ultimately benefit the local fisherman.

mpa-graphicTo be in the company with such exquisite places of natural beauty that have been protected for decades, like Yellowstone, makes me wonder why it took so long to secure protections in the Atlantic? The answer of course is complicated, involving a dissenting Congress, foreign and political affairs taking precedence over environmental concerns, shortsighted decisions, and the ongoing disagreement between scientists and local fisherman who directly depend on the Atlantic for their livelihood.

Possible Effect on Local Economy:

fishing-boatsCurrently trawlers, lobster and crab boats, along with some recreational fishing boats operate in the now protected area of Northeast Canyons and Seamounts.  Estimates have ranged from $10-50 million dollars that will be lost due to the ceasing of fishing in the 5,000 square mi protected area, which is roughly the size of Connecticut. The hardest hit areas due to these new restrictions on fishing will be: Montauk, NY; Southern Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, though Maine and New Hampshire will also be impacted.  The main opponents of the new marine monument have been fishermen and Republicans because they believe that it hurts business prospects and criticize Obama for his use of executive power to “shield public space”. However, Obama’s actions do nearly the opposite of shielding public space, as it actually allows critical ocean habitats to be preserved so that future generations can reap the benefits of a healthy ecosystem and witness the incredible underwater world that is exemplified in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts.  Obviously, there will be an initial decline in fishing and profit as fishermen adjust to the new regulations and find other options to continue fishing; however, this protected area will help regulate the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and will lead to increased fish population that will help bolster the fishing industry. To help affected fishermen with this transition a federal program has been set up to help fishermen financially, including low interest loans and grants that promote sustainable fishing.

In the past, fishermen have historically opposed increased regulations on fishing, especially catch limits.  A PBS documentary special about the current state of New England Fisheries that aired early this year, depicted the tension between scientists, fishermen, and policymakers highlighting the balancing act of protecting wildlife and people’s livelihoods.  In this documentary, the vast majority of fisherman stated that they supported entire areas that were closed to fishing either temporarily or permanently as opposed to increased catch limits and extraneous regulations.  In contrast, most sources state that in regard to this issue of closing fishing in the canyons and seamounts off Cape Cod fisherman would have preferred increased regulations that allowed fishing to continue in the area.  Have fishermen switched their stance on the marine policy issue or is the information being transmitted about fishermen’s views on the national marine monument not representative of the overall opinion?  Many fishermen have claimed in the past that closing an entire area due to substantial biological importance would benefit them more in the long run, while enabling them to continue to fish more freely in the waters open for fishing.

What Happened to Cashes Ledge?

A very interesting controversy that surrounds the naming of this area as a national marine monument, is the exclusion of Cashes Ledge, a nearby marine hotspot that is more remote but plays an even more critical role in maintain the ecosystem and providing a refugcashes-ledgee for target species such as cod. Originally the New England Aquarium backed by scientists and with the legal aid of Conservation Law Foundation heavily pushed for Cashes Ledge, a 500 square mile area about 80 miles East of Portsmouth, NH and just to the north of George’s Bank.  Cashes Ledge is significantly smaller than the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, and it is home to many endangered species as well as both coral reefs and kelp forests. Its more remote location has made trawling and fishing more difficult in and around it, so completely closing that area off to fishing would have a lesser economic impact in comparison the canyons and seamounts. In March the Obama administration announced that Cashes Ledge was off the table for designation as a national marine monument, which was surprising considering conservationists and scientists thought that Cashes was the front runner to be the first area in the Atlantic to be granted full protection.  It is still unclear exactly why Cashes Ledge was not taken into consideration when deciding which marine areas to protect, especially since it had so much public momentum throughout New England pushing for protection.  The protection of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is a huge victory and a historic accomplishment, but perhaps not as significant a designation as previously thought as it excludes the most important area in the Atlantic for biodiversity and ecosystem health – Cashes Ledge.

Obama’s Environmental Legacy:

Through the use of his executive power to name national monuments and parks, in his last few months in office Obama has dramatically expanded the amount of ocean territory that is now protected.  Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the President can unilaterally declare national protected areas, and Obama has used this power to expand 19 national monuments. When he came into office only about 6% of U.S. waters were protected and now with the addition of the first protected area in the Atlantic 25.5% of U.S. ocean waters are under strong protections.  Through doing so, he is not only solidifying his legacy as leader in combatting climate change, but continues Teddy Roosevelt’s vision and legacy by expanding protected public land that has significant cultural and ecological value.  In total, President Obama has protected 530,000,000 acres of marine habitat in his 8 years. In recent years, small island nations such as Palau have become leaders in implementing marine conservation policies through protecting 5000,000 square kilometers of ocean within their Exclusive Economic Zone. Additionally, the U.K. and New Zealand have taken significant steps to protect their own underwater canyons and biodiverse marine hotspots.  President Obama’s move to increase marine protected areas within U.S. waters not only protects vital resources, but shows that the U.S. stands with these other nations who are making history by protecting the ocean from further damage.

The attention given to the health of the oceans at such a critical time in history quite literally is shaping the future of our planet.  Though the ocean is under constant threat from overfishing, pollution, climate change, and ocean acidification, President Obama reminds us that, “nature’s actually resilient, if we take to just stop actively destroying it”. In other words by protecting critical habitats it gives the ocean just enough breathing room to mend itself and continue to support tremendous biodiversity while also providing jobs to millions around the world.