Yesterday evening, several hundred people turned out for a NOAA town hall meeting in Providence, R.I. to express their views on the Obama Administration's recent announcement that it was considering permanently protecting some of the nation's most spectacular ocean places by designating a marine national monument off the New England coast. This would be the first-ever marine monument anywhere off the continental United States. The number and passion of those who wanted to speak at last night's meeting took it more than an hour past its scheduled ending time.
The overwhelming majority of the audience, as well as the majority of the speakers, were there to express support for the designation, while a contingent of largely fishermen spoke in opposition. The evening was kicked off by videotaped comments by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT) and U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro (CT) expressing strong support for quick action by the Administration to designate the monument. In addition to political officials, supporters of the designation were highly diverse and included coastal businesses, like whale watching companies, as well as students and educators, scientists, conservation organizations, faith-based groups, and fishermen. The meeting was facilitated by NOAA officials from Washington, D.C. and the agency's regional office.
The area that NOAA says is being considered for the national marine monument is part of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area, which encompasses five undersea canyons and four seamounts approximately 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The government did not identify two of the canyons nor Cashes Ledge, a dazzling biological hotspot in the Gulf of Maine, as under consideration, as NRDC and others have advocated. Many of the speakers last night expressed support for both the monument proposal and for including the two additional canyons and the Cashes Ledge area within the monument boundaries.
The canyons and seamounts are exceptional for their diversity and abundance of deep-sea corals, which, together with associated species including sponges and anemones, form the foundation of deep-sea ecosystems. During a series of groundbreaking exploratory dives conducted from NOAA's Okeanos Explorer in 2013 and 2014, at least 58 species of coral were identified in these canyons and seamounts.
The four seamounts, which are extinct underwater volcanoes, in the proposed national marine monument are the only ones in U.S. Atlantic waters, and rise as high as 7,700 feet above the ocean floor, higher than any mountain east of the Mississippi River. The seamounts are considered "biological islands in the deep sea," where many different species live in close proximity, and new life is incubated. The highest peak in Cashes Ledge, Ammen Rock, holds the deepest and largest kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. All the areas are extensively used by a diverse array of marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, and fish. Scientists and resources managers in the region have long recognized the special attributes of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts and Cashes Ledge and engaged in extensive investigations and explorations of these places for years.
For more detail on these locations, see my previous blog posts, including:
A number of fishermen and representatives of the regional fishery management council, as well as Maine's Governor LePage, have spoken out against the possible monument designation. The fishermen fear being shut out of areas they currently fish and have concerns about interference with the fishery management process by which decisions about protecting ocean habitat have historically been made and that they feel has been doing a good job, and about the different, more expedited process by which monument designations can be made to protect special ecological areas, compared to the generally years-long fishery management process in which they have huge influence.
But both the Coral Canyons and Seamounts as well as Cashes Ledge are subject to relatively little fishing activity, in part because partial fishing restrictions are already in place in recognition of the places' special and vulnerable ecological attributes. Moreover, NRDC and other supporters of the monument designation have little confidence that the fishery management council will ever put a full set of adequate protections in place (there certainly is no precedent for them doing so). Any protections would also be limited to fishing, and not address other threats, like oil and gas development and mining.
There are also commercial fishermen who understand the wisdom of permanently preserving the most critical ocean habitat, so that these marine refuges can boost fish numbers outside protected zones.
"I'd like to see permanent protection for Cashes Ledge, so I'd like to see these areas closed to extractive activities," said Craig Pendleton, a retired commercial fisherman in Saco, Maine, at a September 2 gathering about New England ocean treasures at the New England Aquarium in Boston. "As a fisherman I always believed that it would act as a generator," he said. "If we could close off areas it would work better and we would catch fish as they spilled out of the area."
And other, energized stakeholders have voiced strong support for the monument.
A whale watching captain spoke enthusiastically about how a national designation would boost tourism in local communities, by drawing new visitors, and also by protecting the marine mammals, such as right whales, that customers spot on his trips. Much of New England's ocean economy is based on tourism and recreation.
Captain Buddy Vanderhoop, a Native American of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, who owns a fishing charter company out of Martha's Vineyard, urged NOAA to consider the importance of protecting these areas to preserve the beauty and fishing opportunities for his grandchildren's generation.
Marine scientists spoke of the diverse marine mammal populations that frequent these areas, the deep sea coral communities that could grow for hundreds of years and reach the sizes of small trees, and other important biological attributes of these areas, and the ongoing strong scientific interest in their study and preservation.
NRDC has been urging supporters to make their voices heard. So far, in addition to those who attended the Town Hall, at least 160,000 people have written to NOAA urging for national monument designation. The drive to fish, drill and mine that has taken hold in so many parts of the ocean leaves these critical and fragile habitats at risk. Marine life has been in decline worldwide, with potentially disastrous consequences for humans and ocean ecosystem health. Permanent protection would preserve the irreplaceable biodiversity in these spots for long into the future.
Healthy and diverse marine communities like these also work as buffers, supporting species as they face the effects of climate change and ocean acidification. Marine protected areas in other places have shown positive results, helping to protect food security and promote economic growth from tourism and recreation.
NOAA officials announced last night that the website for public comments, email@example.com, will remain open past what had been yesterday's deadline. So, if you have not already, I urge you to submit comments in support of what we hope is a historic action by the President to create the first ever U.S. Atlantic marine monument.