Happy Birthday to the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts!

Five years ago, President Obama designated this ocean oasis as a marine national monument. 

This large bubblegum coral (Paragorgia arborea) was observed on Retriever Seamount in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

NOAA Ocean Exploration, 2021 North Atlantic Stepping Stones: New England and Corner Rise Seamounts.

Five years ago today, on September 15, 2016, President Obama designated the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. By signing Proclamation 9496, he created the nation’s first marine national monument in the waters of the continental United States.

Located about 130 miles off the New England coast and about the size of Connecticut, the monument permanently protects an undersea world of plunging canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and mountains taller than anything east of the Rockies. This spectacular ocean wilderness is 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 pom-pom anemone) to the flat-out gorgeous (like forests of seven-feet-high bubblegum corals, as ancient as the redwoods). The monument is a reservoir of ecological resilience in the region, helping to protect and restore fish and other wildlife populations and to buffer the impacts of climate change. It is also a critical laboratory and reference site for studying the effects of a warming ocean.

As remarkable as the monument seemed in 2016, it is only more remarkable today.

Scientists have been documenting the monument’s rich and diverse ecosystems and scientific importance (see the published scientific paper here). All told, the monument area is estimated to be home to more than 1,000 species. Deep-sea coral species alone number more than 70. Scientific expeditions have even discovered new species in the monument.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) most recent dives this summer demonstrated anew the monument’s magic (and its capacity to provide sparks of humor: Scientists spotted a yellow sponge and pink sea star that couldn’t help but remind them of the television show’s beloved SpongeBob SquarePants and his sidekick, Patrick). See NOAA’s video here.

Regular aerial surveys by the New England Aquarium have demonstrated that the diversity and abundance of marine mammals in the monument are even more extraordinary than previously believed (see blogs here).  

Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus) swimming above the Northeast Canyons Maine National Monument.

Ester Quintana/Anderson Cabot Center/NEAQ

The urgency of the monument’s mission has only grown over the last five years, as the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss have become even more apparent to scientists and the public alike. The Biden administration has launched an ambitious climate agenda and pledged to conserve 30 percent of our oceans (and lands) by 2030; critical initiatives for which the monument is an early down payment.

On this fifth birthday, however, the monument is vulnerable.

Red jellyfish in the genus Poralia was seen at a depth of 700 meters (2,297 feet)

NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2021 North Atlantic Stepping Stones expedition

In June 2020, President Trump issued a proclamation purporting to revoke the monument’s prohibition on commercial fishing. And he did so despite government data on commercial landings and revenues showing that in the three years following the monument’s designation, the relevant fisheries’ overall landings and revenues remained the same or increased. President Trump’s rollback has been challenged in federal court, but in the meantime, commercial fishing has resumed, and the monument’s fragile ecosystems and scientific integrity are vulnerable to irreversible damage, according to scientists.

A recommendation from the U.S. Department of the Interior to reverse this rollback awaits action by the president, as I’ve written about here.

We urge President Biden to give a birthday present to our newest “blue park” by restoring its full protection.

Save Our Marine Monuments

About the Authors

Brad Sewell

Senior Director, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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