Stretching from Virginia to the Canadian border on America’s Atlantic coastline, some 80 to 150 miles out into the sea, a series of massive undersea canyons cut into the continental shelf, some more than 100 miles long and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Just beyond these canyons, four underwater mountains, or seamounts—the only ones in U.S. Atlantic waters—rise as high as 7,000 feet above the ocean floor, higher than any peak east of the Rockies.
Research in the canyons and seamounts reveals a world teeming with life, including vivid cold-water corals, whales, sea turtles, fish, and seabirds—as well as new and rare marine species. Yet commercial fishing, oil and gas exploration, and deep-sea mining can put these areas at risk. For example, one pass of a weighted trawl net scraping along a canyon wall can destroy corals that have been growing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, eliminating fragile and important deep-sea communities. And the energy pulses of seismic surveys used during oil and gas exploration can not only damage or kill fish and their larvae but cause considerable harm to whales, fish, and other marine life.
For years, NRDC encouraged and supported the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to protect some of these magnificent canyons. In 2015, the council acted to ban certain types of damaging fishing gear, like bottom trawls, in more than two dozen canyons as well as in approximately 38,000 square miles of surrounding deep-sea habitat. We are now urging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to approve the council's action. And we are pressuring Congress and federal agencies to keep offshore drilling out of the Atlantic and away from these natural wonders.
Opportunity for Marine National Monument
Farther north, off the New England coast, we are working to secure permanent protection for the northernmost of the Atlantic canyons—from Oceanographer Canyon to Heezen Canyon—plus all four of the Atlantic Coast's seamounts by pushing for national monument designation. Known as the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, the area features remarkably rich, diverse, and pristine coral communities whose canyons are considered the crown jewels of the Atlantic canyons. Whales, sea turtles, and seabirds are drawn to the area, and a number of the species, such as sperm whales and Atlantic puffin, are considered iconic to the region. Marine mammal experts believe the area may have the highest diversity of cetaceans in the North Atlantic. A compilation of spectacular video taken by NOAA during investigations in this area can be found here.
Though the area is relatively pristine, with little human activity currently affecting it, the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts is at risk of future damage from mounting offshore industrial activity, including commercial fishing, drilling, and mining. Protecting key ocean habitats helps boost resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.
National monument designation of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts has wide and diverse public support. More than 300,000 people and entities have sent letters and other expressions of support to the president, including almost 150 scientists, marine science institutions, marine educators, businesses, fishermen, state and local elected officials, state and national religious organizations, and ocean-conservation organizations. The Connecticut congressional delegation, led by Senator Richard Blumenthal, has written to the president formally requesting national monument designation for the area.
We have a historic opportunity to protect these ocean treasures, just as Americans have acted to protect our iconic public lands throughout the last century. We don’t know when this opportunity will come again. You can join Philippe Cousteau and take action here.