History Made: New England Ocean Treasures Protected!

President Obama made history today. He established the nation’s first marine national monument in the waters of the continental United States: the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, located about 150 miles of the coast of Cape Cod. The monument will forever protect the rich diversity of marine wildlife that inhabits these undersea canyons and seamounts from harmful commercial activities, like mining, drilling, and fishing. It will build a reservoir of ecological resilience in the region, helping to protect and restore fish and other wildlife populations and to minimize the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. 

What the President has done is epic. He has permanently protected a highly vulnerable ecosystem roughly the size of Connecticut, creating a “blue park” right off our most populous coastline. And he increased by twenty times the amount of ocean habitat in federal waters of the continental U.S. that has this sort of complete protection.

Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts

And what an ocean gem the canyons and seamounts are! As the science shows, America’s newest monument is exceptional for its diverse and abundant deep sea corals—73 different species in all, and for its marine mammals, like squid-eating sperm and beaked whales, as well as its seabirds and sea turtles. And, of course, fish also abound here, from bizarre deep sea species that you’ve never heard of to those kings of the food chain: sharks, tunas, and swordfish.

The monument encompasses three submarine canyons, Oceanographer, Gilbert, and Lydonia. They are exceptionally large and plunge deeper than the Grand Canyon. The canyons contain particularly abundant and diverse coral colonies and have a rich history of scientific exploration.

The four seamounts, Physalia, Bear, Retriever, and Mytilus, are the only ones in the U.S. Atlantic. They rise up through the water column and function like ocean oases in the deep sea. The monument covers nine different major, interconnected habitat types, from the continental shelf edge down to the abyssal plain. Because of this mosaic of habitats, and the complex geologic features and current patterns, the area is a biologic hotspot, providing food, shelter and nursery habitat for many species. This will benefit wildlife populations in the region as a whole, including commercially valuable fish and crustacean species. 

Atlantic puffin, which overwinters in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument

Photo credit: Jean-Jacques Boujot, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Short videos featuring the canyons and seamounts and their wildlife can be seen here and here.

If we are going to protect and restore our oceans, and rely on them as a source of food and enjoyment even as pressures and threats mount, the type of bold, trailblazing action that the President took today is exactly what we need. In particular, we need to build ecological resilience and protect genetic diversity to insulate marine populations against climate change and ocean acidification. With New England ocean waters already undergoing some of the greatest temperature increases on the planet, this action is none too soon. Last week, the nations and organizations at the IUCN World Conservation Congress urged world leaders to protect 30% of the planet’s oceans by 2030. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is an excellent step in answering this call. 

So, Mr. President, thank you!  

And a huge thanks as well to Senator Blumenthal and the Connecticut Congressional delegation for being steadfast champions of the monument.

Finally, the designation would not have happened but for the outpouring of support from a broad and diverse coalition. Over the last year, 300,000 citizens have voiced support to the Administration. They have been joined by Mystic and New England Aquariums, along with a host of other aquarium and marine institutions, over 145 scientists, 100 New England businesses, dozens of state and federal elected officials, dozens of state and national religious groups, fishermen, marine mammal research groups and whale watch operators, dive groups, and conservation organizations. 

A day to celebrate indeed!

Deepwater corals on the western wall of Oceanographer Canyon

Photo credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition

About the Authors

Brad Sewell

Director, Fisheries and U.S. Atlantic, Oceans Program

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