Spectacular Atlantic Ocean Area a Step Closer to Protection

Paramuriceid seafan (octocoral) in Oceanographer Canyon
Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition

About 150 miles off Cape Cod, where the continental shelf drops into the pitch-black abyss of the deep Atlantic Ocean, a series of massive undersea canyons plunge thousands of feet, some deeper than the Grand Canyon. Just beyond these canyons, four underwater mountains (or “seamounts”)—the only ones in U.S. Atlantic waters—rise as high as 7,000 feet above the ocean floor, higher than any mountain east of the Rockies. The walls and precipices of these geologic wonders are alive with vivid cold-water corals of otherworldly beauty—some the size of small trees and taking centuries to grow. Deep-sea fish and other rare creatures resembling Dr. Seussian creations ply the depths. In the waters above, whales, dolphins, seabirds, and sea turtles, including the iconic sperm whale and Atlantic puffin, feast on thick schools of squid and fish.

This marvelous undersea wilderness just moved an important step closer to permanent protection: the U.S. Congressional delegation for the State of Connecticut today sent a letter to President Obama requesting that he designate the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area as a marine national monument—the first anywhere off the continental United States. The delegation’s proposal, which was spearheaded by Senator Richard Blumenthal, includes a map with boundaries for the proposed monument. The total area that would be encompassed within the proposed monument is 6173 square miles.

In the letter, the Connecticut delegation states that the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts is “an aquatic treasure of unbelievable bounty” that is “deeply deserving” of national monument designation. As reasons for the designation, the letter states that it will protect countless species from irreversible damage, help make the ocean more resilient to climate change and ocean acidification, support economic activity that depends on healthy oceans, advance science and research, and preserve natural history.

The Connecticut delegation’s letter states that a March 2016 study by scientists with New England’s two leading aquariums provided support for the proposal, including its boundaries. The aquariums’ study documented the impressive abundance and diversity of the ecological resources of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area. These resources include 73 different taxa of deep sea corals, two dozen of which were recently discovered for the first time in the region, a number of cold methane seeps inhabited by rare and highly-specialized chemosynthetic organisms, and an unusually high abundance and diversity of marine mammals. In addition to being an extraordinary biological hotspot, the study noted that the canyons and seamounts area currently remained relatively pristine. The scientists also cautioned that many of the area’s species have very long recovery times and extremely low resilience, and therefore are highly vulnerable to human intrusion, including pelagic and bottom fishing, offshore oil and gas activities, and seabed mining.

The Connecticut delegation’s map encompasses a series of canyons, stretching from Oceanographer Canyon on the south end to Heezen Canyon near the U.S.-Canada maritime boundary. This “canyon unit” of the proposed monument would include protection of areas along the edge of the continental shelf, as well as in the heads of the canyons, that the aquariums’ study showed are particularly important for marine mammals and for overall benthic (sea bottom) species richness, such as corals. The seamounts are encompassed within a separate “seamount unit,” with a gap between the two units, which will aid vessel transiting along the shelf edge.

Protecting the canyons and seamounts will benefit coastal economies and communities. The species that the area helps support are important to ocean tourism and recreation. While it is difficult to quantify precisely, New Englanders generally, and fishermen specifically, will also benefit from the protection of important fish habitat from all commercial fishing and regulating recreational fishing. Finally, protection of the canyons and seamounts will also build ecological resilience to cope with climate change stresses and provide disturbance-free sentinel reference sites to understand and help shape how we address climate change.

The Obama Administration first expressed its interest in a possible monument in the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area last fall. To engage the public, the Administration held a “town hall” meeting in Providence, RI in September 2015. A round of regional stakeholder meetings was later held in April 2016. The Administration has also been accepting written comments. In response to such outreach, the showing of public support for the proposed monument has been overwhelming, and has included hundreds of marine scientists, marine science institutions, marine educators, businesses, state and federal elected officials, state and national religious organizations, tourism-related businesses, high tech businesses, and more than 250,000 citizens. The letter from 49 organizations to the President in support of the monument can be found here.

Since first used by Theodore Roosevelt, all but two presidents have used the Antiquities Act to establish national monuments. Places that can be protected under the Antiquities Act for the benefit of future generations include areas of high scientific interest. President George W. Bush created four monuments in the Pacific Ocean covering a total of 860,000 square kilometers in addition to numerous land and historic monuments. Currently, there are no marine monuments in the waters of the continental United States, including Alaska.

We have a responsibility to protect our nation’s ocean treasures, just as past generations of Americans acted to protect our iconic lands through the national park system. I applaud Senator Blumenthal and the Connecticut delegation’s leadership in proposing protection for one of these treasures. I strongly urge the Obama Administration to act on this historic proposal, and, as the Connecticut delegation urged, establish a first-of-its-kind “blue park,” thus cementing the President’s “legacy as a champion of environmental and historic preservation both on land and at sea.”

Anemone in Heezen Canyon
Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
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