More than 160,000 people have signed a petition asking President Obama to declare a marine national monument in New England waters. It’s an effort spearheaded by a coalition of environmental groups and scientists. But the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is asking the president to reject this proposal.
Cashes Ledge, about 80 miles off the coast of Gloucester, is home to vibrant corals and kelp forests. Farther than that, about 180 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, underwater canyons and mountains support a rich diversity of fish, plants and mammals.
These areas are described as vulnerable ocean treasures. And environmentalists and scientists are urging President Obama Act to proclaim them as national monuments using the federal Antiquities Act. That’s a problem for regulators.
“Under the Antiquities Act, the president can act without any public comment, any public input. I think that’s the big issue right now,” said Mark Gibson, chief of the fisheries division at the state Department of Environmental Management. He represents Rhode Island in fisheries groups. He said the New England Fisheries Management Council is already working to protect important habitats for corals, using the nation’s primary fishing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
“So it will take some time,” said Gibson. “We are going through the full process of committee recommendations for areas that need to be protected, and the council will have to consider those, move them to public hearings, move them to the next council meeting, so it’s a long process that goes on.”
It’s a long process, but it works, adds David Borden, a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and a lobsterman. He said this proposal is missing the comprehensive review that happens among regulators, fishermen and environmental advocates.
“I think it’s important for the public to realize that there is no formal proposal that’s available for either the fishing industry or the public to look at and so we’ve requested that the public be afforded that opportunity,” said Borden.
The commission recently sent a letter to President Obama, asking him to let the NEFMC regulate protections for deep sea corals. But just in case the president moves forward with declaring a marine national monument in New England, the commission included recommendations for making a designation that would be compatible with existing fishing activities.
The White House is also getting recommendations from scientists supporting the proposal. “Marine scientists from both the Mystic Aquarium and the New England Aquarium released new science that pushed evidence for what the boundaries should be and their reasoning for that,” said Josh Block, press secretary for the Conservation Law Foundation.
Portions of Cashes Ledge have been closed off to fishing for more than a decade, but Block said those restrictions aren’t permanent, leaving unique marine species and habitats vulnerable to harmful human activities. He said the country’s fisheries law is important, but has limitations.
“So it can’t provide comprehensive protection from other threats like mining, cable-laying, and drilling,” said Block. “Those processes can’t accomplish the type of comprehensive protection that the Antiquities Act was designed to accomplish.”
Both supporters and opponents of the proposal agree the region relies heavily on these habitats and the fishing industry for seafood, jobs, recreation and research. But they’re clashing on how to go about protecting these resources.
President Obama has not yet issued a formal proposal, but according to the Associated Press, his Council on Environmental Quality said it won’t create a national marine monument in Cashes Ledge.