A Decision on the Merits?

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is due this week to submit his report and recommendations on the fate of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine  National Monument, as well as 26 other national monuments (see my blog here about how this report came about). If this decision were on the merits, then it would be simple. Here’s why:

The law is clear

The Canyons and Seamounts Monument cannot be abolished by the President. Only Congress can do this. This is because the Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution assigns power over our public lands and waters to Congress. In the Antiquities Act, Congress delegated a discrete portion of that power to the President: it authorized the President to “declare by public proclamation . . . national monuments,” acting in Congress’s place to preserve objects of scientific or historical interest. In contrast, Congress did not grant the President the power to abolish national monuments once designated.

Paramuricea Coral

Image courtesy of Northeast Canyons 2013 Science Team/NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

The science is strong

The canyons and seamounts are biodiversity hotspots, encompassing an extraordinary diversity of topographic features, depth, and substrates, with accompanying unique, biologically rich, and highly-sensitive ecological communities of great scientific value. The impressive abundance and diversity of the area’s ecological resources were documented in a March 2016 study by scientists from the Mystic Aquarium and New England Aquarium (see the comment letter to Interior from the aquariums' scientists here). The study found that the area is an extraordinary biological hotspot and remains relatively pristine. It contains a mosaic of diverse habitat types, ranging from the rich shelf break environment around the canyon heads to the exotic deep sea environment of the seamounts that rise thousands of feet off the lower continental slope, that contribute to an unusually high number and abundance of species. These include 73 different types of deep-sea corals, two dozen of which were recently discovered for the first time in the region and some of which live for thousands of years and grow several meters in height.

The study documented the unusually high abundance and diversity of marine mammals, including endangered sperm whales and beaked whales, which forage for squid and pelagic fish in the upwellings and complex currents that characterize the area. Concentrations of seabirds, including the Atlantic puffin, and sea turtles also congregate and forage in the waters over the canyons and seamounts. Ninety-five scientists submitted a letter to the Interior Department supporting the aquariums’ findings and the extraordinary ecological value of the monument area.

Like many of our parks, monuments and other protected areas on land, the Canyons and Seamounts Monument also serves a broader ecological function that scientists consider increasingly critical. Scientists have warned that, without strongly protected ocean areas, our oceans face a looming mass extinction of marine wildlife. Acting on such warnings, nations and organizations gathered at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress and called for 30 percent of the planet’s oceans to be strongly protected from extractive activities by 2030 in order to safeguard ocean ecosystem health and resilience, particularly as ocean waters warm and acidify. Studies of strongly protected marine areas show significantly higher levels of fish density and biomass compared to areas that remain open to extractive activities. The Canyons and Seamounts Monument is the only marine national monument off the continental U.S. and the only strongly protected area in the Atlantic federal waters. See a letter from over 500 scientists about the importance of marine protected areas here.

The threats are real

Before designation, the Monument’s marine life was subject to damage and harm from fishing gear, and threatened by the expansion of such gear’s use into deeper depths. The Monument was also under threat of mineral extraction and energy exploration and development in the future. Many of the species in the Monument have long recovery times and low resilience, and therefore are highly vulnerable to harm. Deep-sea corals in particular are extremely slow growing and long-lived (i.e., hundreds to thousands of years). As a result, disturbances can cause significant adverse impacts, with recovery times of hundreds of years or longer.

Commercial fishing specifically posed a threat to the Monument’s most sensitive and important resources. Today’s fishing technology is so advanced that few areas of fishing interest remain beyond reach. Virtually all forms of fishing—even what is considered sustainable fishing of certain fish stocks so that they do not become overfished—has some level of deleterious ecological effect and would degrade the sensitive and pristine ecosystems found in the Canyons and Seamounts Monument. Such adverse effects can include.

  • Habitat degradation and/or loss: Many fishing gears, particularly those that touch or are pulled across the bottom of the seafloor, can degrade and even destroy habitat. NOAA images have captured red crab traps in deep-sea coral habitat around the monument;
  • Bycatch: Because the Monument is a hotspot for marine mammals, bycatch of small whales and dolphins in longline gear intended for tuna and swordfish posed a particular threat;
  • Entanglement: Lines used on heavy offshore traps pose an entanglement risk to marine mammals. The Monument constitutes the first “entanglement free” zone for marine mammals in the Atlantic;
  • Harm to populations, communities and ecosystems, such as through changes to population structures and abundance, and removal of top predators; and
  • Derelict fishing (ghost) gear: Fishing gear that is lost, abandoned or discarded in the water can continue to catch animals or harm habitats.

It has been suggested that the New England Fishery Management Council should have remained entrusted with conserving the Monument’s important and sensitive ecological resources, at least with respect to fishing threats (the Council cannot protect against other threats, like energy and mining development). This would have put the Monument’s unique and fragile resources at high risk. Not only does the Council have inadequate legal authority to fully protect these special ecosystems but it has a dismal track record in using the authority it does have. For example, in 2016, the Council approved a nearly 50% reduction in protection, to just 2%, in the area in its jurisdiction protected from bottom-tending mobile gears (gears like bottom trawls and dredges that are considered among the more destructive gear types).

The designation process was deliberative and consultative

Over the course of the year preceding the Monument’s designation in September 2016, multiple public meetings and meetings with stakeholders, including fishermen, were held. Even fishing industry representatives have acknowledged that they were actively engaged in the process for more than a year before the Monument was ultimately designated.

Public and stakeholder consultation prior to the designation included a “town hall” meeting held in Providence in September 2015, at which many fishermen spoke. The meeting initiated a one-year public comment period. In addition, it is our understanding that the process leading up to monument’s designation included at least four sets of additional meetings with commercial fishing representatives, and that there were frequent (on an almost weekly basis) informal communications between Administration officials and fishing industry representatives.

The result of the extensive consultations with the fishing industry prior to designation is that initial Monument proposals were significantly modified to address objections raised by certain industry sectors. These compromises included: (1) an almost 60% reduction of the Monument’s canyon and inter-canyon area, (2) a seven-year grace period for the lobster and red crab fisheries to provide the handful of affected participants in these fisheries the opportunity to make the necessary adaptations, and (3) the incorporation of a vessel transit corridor between the Monument’s canyon and seamounts units.

The political, stakeholder, and public support for the Monument has been overwhelming

Political support for the Monument included U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and the entire Connecticut Congressional delegation, as well as 20 members and former members of the Maine House and Senate, two members of the New Hampshire House and one State Senator, 18 members of the Massachusetts House and one State Senator, and 18 members of the Rhode Island House. Public support for the monument designation was enormous, with over 300,000 signatures and support letters submitted in response to NOAA’s request for public comment. The diverse stakeholder support at the time of designation included recreational fishing groups and captains (e.g., the American Sportfishing Association and other national angling groups, members of both the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils, and numerous individual charter captains); over 100 New England businesses (including technology companies, restaurants, dive, surf and kayak shops, and whale watch operators); religious leaders and organizations (including letters of support signed by 22 religious leaders from Connecticut, 34 religious leaders from Rhode Island, 24 religious leaders from the region, and 29 faith-based organizations and religious leaders); 10 aquariums; and dozens of conservation groups from the region and around the country.

Political, stakeholder, and public support for the Monument has not wavered since its designation. Senator Blumenthal continues his strong support in defense of this Monument. A number of U.S. Representatives from around the region have added their support (see here, here, and here). Thirty-five members of the Rhode Island Legislature and 25 members of the Massachusetts Legislature submitted letters of support to the Interior Department. Others writing letters of support for the Monument included: more than 227,000 members of the public; 37 New England CEOs and business leaders; 62 business owners and managers in the region (including from restaurants, surf and kayak shops, and whale watch operators); 65 leaders in the faith community;119 recreational fishermen; 95 scientists; 21 leading aquariums; and dozens of conservation and scientific organizations. It should also be noted that, for monuments overall, more than 99% (of the 2.7 million+) public comments opposed Trump’s executive order calling for the review (see analysis here).

Economic impacts will be a net positive

As a result of the protections put in place through designation, the Canyons and Seamount Monument will benefit the surrounding ocean ecosystem and the regional economy. The Monument helps support abundant and diverse marine life that is important for the region’s ocean recreation, fishing and tourism industries. Ocean resources in New England as a whole support over 230,000 jobs and $16 billion in economic activity, with half of these jobs and over $7 billion of this economic activity in the tourism and recreation sector, including the whale watching, recreational fishing and seabird viewing industries. These activities depend on healthy and abundant sea life, such as those that live or rely on the canyons and seamounts area.

For example, the Atlantic canyons, including those in the Monument, are hotspots for trophy fish, such as billfish and tuna. By allowing recreational fishing and excluding other extractive uses, the Monument will preserve and enhance the experience of visiting recreational fishermen. And recreational fishing is a very big business in New England: in 2014, saltwater angling in the region provided more than 20,000 jobs and contributed almost $2 billion to the U.S. GDP.  New England residents spent more than $118 million on charter trips alone. 

The monument’s short-term impacts on commercial fishing are negligible and will be positive in the long run

We are not aware of any substantiated commercial fishing losses resulting from designation of the Canyons and Seamounts Monument. The Monument’s deep and rugged canyon and seamount areas were historically some of the least fished in the U.S. Atlantic and not unusually important for any fishery. The approximately six to eight red crab and lobster vessels active in the monument area have been provided a seven-year grace period to adapt fishing locations and practices. Because the monument does not affect catch limits or allocations, other types of fishing effort, such as the small amount of trawling that occurred in the shallowest portion of the monument and pelagic longlining (such as for tuna and swordfish), have likely been relocated to other areas. Significantly, Monument critics from the trawl and longline fleet have not made public any information indicating that they are unable to cost-effectively catch the allocated quota in these fisheries. As noted above, the canyon and inter-canyon area in the original monument proposal was also reduced by almost 60 percent to leave out the relatively more active trawling areas. A more detailed analysis of the monument’s impacts on commercial fishing is available here.

Because of the spillover from populations inside the Monument, it may ultimately enhance at least some regional fisheries. There is ample theory and a growing body of empirical evidence that protected areas can benefit certain commercial fisheries, such as lobster, through the spillover of adult fish or larval export.


We hope that the overwhelming merits of the Canyons and Seamounts Monument will ultimately carry the day. 

About the Authors

Brad Sewell

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

Join Us