Conservationists Want Obama to Protect an Underwater Grand Canyon
President Obama made history last week when he more than quadrupled the size of a protected marine area off the coast of Hawaii, safeguarding fragile coral reefs and thousands of species that depend on the Pacific Ocean habitat.
Now conservationists hope the administration will protect the Atlantic Ocean’s deep-sea treasures.
Just two decades ago, nobody knew about the weirdly beautiful mid-Atlantic deepwater corals thriving 150 miles off the United States’ New England coast.
It wasn’t until 2013, following a deep-sea mapping expedition by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that the public really got a chance to see those corals. The exploration team captured thousands of images and videos of the marine life teeming among submarine mountains called seamounts, rising some 7,700 feet from the ocean floor, and valleys—some deeper than the Grand Canyon.
But, exactly how, when, and to what extent to protect the underwater peaks and valleys off New England’s continental shelf is up for debate.
Conservationists have called on the president to use his executive power to designate 6,180 square miles encompassing eight canyons and four seamounts as the New England Coral and Seamounts National Monument.
If the president heeds their advice, fishing groups warn the move would shut down portions of a productive $15 million lobster and crab fishery along the edges of the offshore canyons—and unnecessarily outlaw fishing within the zone’s borders for tuna and other open-ocean species that pass through the water column but don’t dwell on the seabed.
“What’s at issue is the lack of transparency in establishing a national monument,” said Robert Beal, executive director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is in charge of managing near-shore fishery resources for 15 coastal states. “If these large boxes are drawn and large areas of the ocean are deemed off-limits, than there is going to be a lot of fishing opportunities displaced or stopped altogether.”
Typically, state and interstate fishing councils are part of the public debate on determining fishery closures and habitat protection zones. That’s how the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council moved to ban bottom trawling in 2015 along more than 35,000 square miles of seafloor from Long Island to North Carolina, just south of the proposed national monument area.
(Video: Courtesy NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)
But with the Antiquities Act—a law presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used to protect iconic landscapes such as Mount Olympus in Washington, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Muir Woods in California—Obama could decide to fully protect the region without input from the fishing industry.
Past presidents have mostly used the authority to preserve land from development. The first president to use the power offshore was George W. Bush, who established the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006.
“It’s frustrating because that power is meant to close off the smallest amount of area as possible that needs protecting, and that’s not the case here,” said Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a fishing industry advocacy group.
He said the proposed national monument boundaries outlined by Connecticut’s congressional delegation and led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., bans fishing far away from the most sensitive coral habitat and could unnecessarily hinder fishing industries that don’t target bottom-dwelling species. Vanasse’s group, along with the fisheries commission, is asking that if the regions are declared a national monument, fishing be allowed up to depths of 3,000 feet.
“If they really just want to protect the seamounts and the canyons, why would you want to stop fishing over them?” Vanasse said. “You don’t tell planes to stop flying over Yosemite.”
Conservationists contend the only reason the more than 73 species of deep-sea corals and accompanying marine life have remained mostly unspoiled is the region’s topography. The steep walls, extreme depth, and rugged, rocky seafloor have kept ecologically devastating fishing practices such as bottom trawling from gaining a foothold and relegated lobster and crab trap fishing to the edges of the canyon cliffs.
As fishing technology improves, the chances for exploitation increase.
Declaring the area a national monument is the only regulatory tool that can protect it from all commercial activities, including fishing, oil extraction, mining, and seismic testing, said Brad Sewell, director of Atlantic coast and federal fisheries activities for the oceans program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The resources that are so spectacular are not simply on the bottom: It’s marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds that use the entire water column. Long-lining and other surface fishing can impact those animals as well,” Sewell said.
As far as displacing the lobster and crab fishing, NRDC analysis found that only 3 percent of federally administered lobster permits are issued in the zone that includes the potential monument site. A “vast majority” of red crab caught along the Eastern Seaboard, for example, are outside the proposed area.
“They’re not really going out that far,” Sewell said, “and as far as the [open ocean] fishing, like for tuna—that’s a fishery that occurs from the Gulf of Mexico to the high seas of Canada. It’s a huge area, so displacement from this one area that’s not significantly more important to fishing than other areas should leave the fishermen OK.”
Despite opposition from the commercial fishing industry, many recreational anglers argue that the preserve could end up benefitting fishing in the region. Multiple studies have shown that restricting fishing in designated marine-protected areas can result in those fish growing larger and living longer—and eventually “spilling over” outside the boundaries, where anglers can legally catch them.
Taylor Ingraham, a recreational angler from Norwalk, Connecticut, told the Hartford Courant that the region is important not just for the corals, but that it also supports the largest collection and density of whales and dolphins in the northern Atlantic.
“If we damage it, it would take decades and decades to come back, if it ever would come back,” he said.
NRDC says that since September 2015, more than 160,000 comments have been submitted to the president in support of permanently protecting the area, but no announcement or proposal for a national monument designation has been made.
Sewell said he is hopeful an announcement could come at the U.S. Department of State’s Our Ocean Conference Sept. 15–16.