NRDC Sues Trump Administration to Keep Commercial Fishing Out of Vulnerable Marine Monument

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is home to an extraordinary array of marine species. But the Trump administration is trying to strip it of its core protections.

A bamboo coral on Mytilus Seamount in Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument

NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Alongside our partners—the Conservation Law Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Zack Klyver, a whale-watching naturalist based in Maine—NRDC sued the Trump administration today for attempting to illegally strip essential protections from the country’s first and only monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

Issued less than two weeks ago, President Trump’s proclamation would open up the 5,000-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing—exposing the area’s complex web of fragile ecosystems to damage. Heavy fishing gear can harm deep-sea coral and seafloor habitat, and thick lines and nets can entangle marine mammals, fish, turtles, and seabirds.

“The Canyons and Seamounts area has been set aside to protect endangered whales, sea turtles, centuries-old corals, and other marine life from extractive activities,” says NRDC senior attorney Kate Desormeau. “Like all of our national monuments, these treasures not only benefit scientific research but are also held in trust for the benefit of current and future generations.”

Designated in 2016, the monument, located off the coast of New England, features dramatic underwater terrain, with canyons that rival the depth of the Grand Canyon and steep underwater mountains higher than anything east of the Rockies. It’s also a hot spot of biodiversity, teeming with ancient corals and unique species, as well as an important nursery area for dolphins and whales.

Scientists believe that these types of marine protected areas are essential to building ocean resiliency in the face of a warming climate. Though recreational fishing is allowed in the marine monument, all commercial extraction is prohibited in order to protect these special and vulnerable ecosystems for scientific research and as part of the country’s natural heritage.

The Trump administration claims the decision to roll back protections will boost jobs and grow the fishing economy in the wake of COVID-19, but these claims are empty. The government’s own data shows that revenues and catch in the relevant fisheries are up or the same since the monument’s designation.

But regardless of the impact on industry, the president simply does not have the authority to issue such a rollback. Under the Antiquities Act, a president is allowed to issue protections for special areas but does not hold the opposite power. Congress is the only one capable of reversing protections.

“President Trump does not have the power to unravel this national monument or any other,” Desormeau says, “and we’re asking the court to stop the administration from opening this unique and fragile ocean area to commercial fishing.”

The monument’s legality has already been upheld by the courts, including in 2019, when an appeals court in Washington, D.C., rejected an attack from fishing industry groups. Today’s lawsuit by NRDC and partners argues the president had no authority under the Antiquities Act or the U.S. Constitution.

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