Will the 1st Atlantic Marine Nat'l Monument Happen Tomorrow?

Sperm Whales in New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area
Credit: Photo: Kelsey Stone, New England Aquarium

President Obama is due to speak tomorrow morning at the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, D.C. This has NRDC and the diverse group of supporters for the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts monument proposal on the edge of our seats. We're waiting to see if he'll announce the first marine national monument in the Atlantic—in fact, anywhere off the continental U.S.

We hope he makes this historic designation and thereby permanently protects a spectacular ocean wilderness, an undersea world of plunging canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and mountains taller than anything east of the Rockies. These impressive geologic features are home to a rich diversity of marine life, from the iconic—like the sperm whale and Atlantic puffin, to the mysterious and bizarre—like the whiplash squid and pompom anemone, to the flat-out gorgeous—like forests of seven feet high “bubblegum” corals, as ancient as the redwoods.

Here's why:

1.  The monument proposal is based on strong science:  

Scientific studies, including a comprehensive analysis conducted in March 2016 by scientists with the region’s two leading aquariums, demonstrate that the New England coral canyons and seamounts area is a critical biological hotspot, with abundant, diverse, and vulnerable marine life, including deep sea corals, whales and dolphins, sea turtles, sea birds, fish and more than a thousand other species. The aquariums’ study showed that shallower areas of the canyons are particularly important for marine mammal foraging and contain highly vulnerable deep sea corals and other habitat. When the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council examined NOAA’s coral observations in the region according to depth range, it also found almost forty percent were shallower than 400 meters. 

As climate change and ocean acidification increasingly threaten ocean life, it becomes more and more urgent to protect important ocean habitats. One of the few ways we can make ocean life better able to withstand warmer and more acidic waters is to reduce stresses from other human impacts. We also need to protect genetic and species diversity. Permanent protection of the unique habitats off the New England coast would provide an important refuge for a tremendous diversity of ocean life, from tiny phytoplankton to endangered sea turtles, as the oceans change.

Just last week, the nations and organizations at the IUCN World Conservation Congress urged world leaders to protect 30% of the planet’s oceans. The Convention on Biological Diversity had previously urged at least 10%. A recent study found, however, that only 0.04% of continental U.S. ocean waters (including state waters) to be completely protected. 

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

2. The Administration has sought public input for more than a year:

Last September, the Obama Administration announced an interest in designating the canyons and the seamounts as a marine national monument. The same month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held a public meeting, which was attended by over 300 people. The President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) held three rounds of stakeholder meetings, including with fishing interests, in April, August, and September. NOAA and CEQ have also solicited written comments and technical information through a web portal and other channels. Early on in this process, monument supporters submitted a specific proposal, including a map.

Public support for the proposed monument has been overwhelming. More than 300,000 citizens have expressed support, along with marine scientists, science institutions, educators, businesses, state and federal elected officials, state and national religious organizations, tourism-related businesses, high tech businesses, local, regional, and national conservation organizations. A letter from 49 conservation groups and aquariums to the President in support of the monument can be found here. A recent poll in MA and RI also showed wide and bipartisan support for protecting the New England canyons and seamounts. Particularly notably, the entire Congressional delegation from the State of Connecticut, led by Senator Blumenthal, made a formal monument proposal to the President in August.

Every indication is that the Administration has been taking such input into account:  if a monument designation proceeds, it is our understanding, for example, that the Connecticut delegation’s proposal is likely to be significantly reduced in size, to include only three undersea canyons—Oceanographer, Gilbert, and Lydonia—as well as four seamounts, in an effort to reach compromise with some in the commercial fishing industry (it is important to note that some fishermen strongly support the monument).

3.  This is a relatively pristine ocean area with minimal commercial activity:

Because of their depth, ruggedness, and distance from shore, the New England coral canyons and seamounts have seen little commercial activity. But with mining, oil and gas development, and fishing pushing deeper into our oceans, this will not last. Now is the time to take action, before it is too late. Only monument designation will protect all the resources of the coral canyons and seamounts from all threats. Fishery managers, for example, cannot regulate threats like oil and gas development and mining. Nor can they adequately protect all the area’s important ecological resources, such as marine mammals. 

There is minimal fishing in the NE canyons and seamounts area currently, although there are already signs of adverse impacts to its fragile and slow-to-recover ecosystem. According to a recent report and other sources, it is our understanding that up to a half dozen lobster vessels and one red crab fishing vessel use the shallower portions of the three canyons. There’s little, if any, bottom trawling for squid, butterfish, and other fish, and this type of fishing is already prohibited in two of the three canyons (no trawling currently occurs on or near the seamounts). Closing off such a little-used and relatively small area is not expected to harm economic performance of the region’s fisheries, in part because of the availability of other areas to fish. Indeed, if the canyons protect vulnerable populations or life stages, catch outside these areas could even increase. A more detailed discussion of a monument’s potential impacts on commercial fishing can be found here

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts could hardly be more deserving of the President’s pen this week. So keep an eye on the Our Ocean Conference, where the U.S. could make history by permanently protecting this special ocean place for us and future generations.