As the United States grapples with how to address the impacts of the climate and biodiversity crises, policymakers should consider ways in which they can ensure the protection of ocean ecosystems and wildlife. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which then-President Barack Obama established in 2016 in recognition of the area’s impressive biodiversity and “objects of historic or scientific interest,” is the only marine national monument in the continental United States. Located about 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, it protects three deep-sea canyons and four underwater mountains, and it teems with wildlife—whales, dolphins, sea birds, turtles, sharks and rays, octopuses and squids, fish, cold-water corals, and sea stars and sponges, all of which are provided refuge to feed and reproduce relatively free from human interference.
The proclamation that President Obama signed to establish the monument closed the area to all commercial fishing, mining, and oil and gas drilling. Shortly after the designation, however, the federal government was sued by commercial fishing interests that claimed the Antiquities Act does not grant the president authority to designate monuments in submerged lands. This set the stage for former President Donald Trump to reopen the monument to commercial fishing in 2020, claiming—without evidence or statutory authority—that “appropriately managed commercial fishing would not put the objects of scientific and historic interest that the monument protects at risk.” Although his proclamation did not lift the mining and drilling restrictions, it does allow the New England Fishery Management Council to use its authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) to manage commercial fishing inside the monument.
Decades of evidence proves that commercial fishing gear seriously damages and degrades ocean habitats, from the seafloor to the surface. The delicate corals and sponges that support the food chain and provide refuge for other animals cannot withstand damage from the heavy chains and dredges used to capture bottom-dwelling fish and shellfish, and when that habitat is destroyed, the fish and shellfish no longer have the area they need to reproduce. Fishing in the water column can entangle and kill nontargeted species—including those protected under federal law. Regardless, many in the commercial fishing industry are adamant that fishing regulations are sufficient to achieve the same conservation outcomes as full protections under the Antiquities Act would, while still allowing fishing to proceed.
Allowing commercial fishing in the monument puts ocean habitats and wildlife at risk
In a recently published paper, the author and other researchers compare the level of protection that the Antiquities Act provided the monument from commercial fishing to the level of protection that the MSA provides. The MSA authorizes fisheries managers to implement measures that reduce the impacts of fishing on sensitive habitat, but these measures are not required and, if implemented, are also not permanent. While protections under the Antiquities Act conserve sites as containing “objects of scientific and historic interest” and are bestowed in perpetuity on behalf of all Americans, the MSA authorizes fisheries managers to protect habitat only when “practicable.”
The paper found that under the MSA, wildlife on the sea surface and in the water column is at risk from pelagic gear in 100 percent of the monument, and wildlife on the ocean floor is at risk from bottom-tending fishing gear in more than 50 percent of the Canyons Unit—the unit most easily accessible from shore. The latter number looks somewhat better when the Seamounts Unit is included in the analysis, with 11 percent of the entire monument exposed to bottom-tending mobile gear and 13 percent exposed to bottom-tending fixed gear. This is somewhat misleading, however, because all bottom-tending gear currently is prohibited in the Seamounts Unit, which is more difficult to access due to its location further offshore.
Before Trump lifted the fishing restrictions in the monument, it was protected by the Antiquities Act from all commercial fishing gear on the surface, in the water column, and on the seafloor, except for a seven-year moratorium for red crab and American lobster commercial fishing. Fishing gear deployed on the surface or in the water column unintentionally catches and entangles nontargeted species, including whales, dolphins, sea birds, turtles, sharks, rays, fish, and other wildlife—many of which are protected under federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This gear include longlines, in which several miles of baited hooks are pulled behind a boat, and midwater trawls, during which large nets are dragged through the water column. Government data from Hawaii for the 10-year period from 2007 to 2017 show that nearly 50 percent of the state’s total longline catch was discarded and that more than 30 percent of the discarded animals were either dead or injured—almost 65,000 animals. Since the rollbacks to protections at the monument in 2020, fisheries managers in New England have declined to restore any protections from this type of gear, despite its known risks.
Gear that damages the sea floor includes both bottom-tending mobile gear—such as trawl nets and dredges that are dragged across the bottom—and bottom-tending fixed gear, including lobster and crab traps. In New England, this gear is known to damage a high percentage of the seafloor, and the ecosystems that it comes into contact with require multiple years to recover. In highly susceptible and vulnerable deep-sea coral habitats, the recovery time increases to thousands of years. Even though the New England Fishery Management Council just finalized protections for deep-sea corals in the region, those protections only extend to 600 meters in water depth. According to the author’s paper, this leaves 59 percent of the Canyons Unit exposed to risk from bottom-tending mobile gear and 69 percent at risk from bottom-tending fixed gear. Tellingly, the action balances conservation interests with those of industry, qualifying that “the management measures are intended to reduce, to the extent practicable, impacts of fishing gear on deep-sea corals in New England while balancing their costs to commercial fisheries.”
Aside from the direct bycatch and entanglement impacts of commercial fishing gear, commercial fishing removes food on which species in the monument depend. Important prey, such as squid, mackerel, and butterfish, is targeted by not only commercial fisheries but also marine mammals, seabirds, sharks, billfish, and tunas. The monument’s spectacular wildlife depends on abundant and available food and should be granted this place of refuge.
President Biden should restore full protections to the monument
The scientific evidence is clear: Protections under the Antiquities Act are far stronger than the conservation measures fisheries managers in New England can implement under the MSA. This is not surprising, as the two laws have significantly different mandates.
President Biden’s national goal to conserve at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 is a necessary step toward combating the climate crisis and the global loss of biodiversity. This case study of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument quantifies the differences between protections afforded the monument under the Antiquities Act and the MSA, showing that fisheries management protections are not sufficient to protect the monument’s wildlife from predictable, albeit unintended, harm. President Biden should restore full protections under the Antiquities Act to protect this spectacular place for future generations.
Kelly Kryc is a senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center for American Progress.