President Barack Obama has created a 4,900 square mile no-go zone for commercial fishing and other activity off the coast of New England as the first-ever Atlantic marine monument, a move loudly hailed by many environmentalists, but drawing strong protests from the fishing industry as well as causing discomfort among some prominent Democratic politicians whose constituents are affected.
According to the White House, the newly protected zone, which focuses on a section of the lip of the continental shelf near the fishing grounds of Georges Bank, “includes three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and four underwater mountains known as ‘seamounts’ that are biodiversity hotspots and home to many rare and endangered species.”
But the area now known as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is also the site of rich lobster and crab fisheries and other commercial fishing activities that are overseen by regional fisheries management councils and are considered to be well-managed, sustainable activities. Some of the fisheries have self-imposed restrictions that are tougher than those laid out by the regulators—and also fish at sea levels far above the ocean bottoms that the marine preserve claims to protect.
Under the monument designation, commercial fishermen have 60 days to depart from the area. Lobster and crab fishermen have been given a seven-year phase-out provision. Recreational fishing will continue to be allowed.
As he did last month in creating a new Pacific marine preserve that is now the largest marine set-aside in the world, Obama used the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows creation of the protected area by decree rather than the normal legislative process—a procedure that has drawn as much criticism from fishing communities as the creation of the preserve itself.
In a press release, the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association declared that “We find it deplorable that the government is kicking the domestic fishing fleet out of an area where they sustainably harvest healthy fish stocks. Declaring a monument via Presidential fiat under unilateral authority of the Antiquities Act stands contrary to the principles of open government and transparency espoused by this President.”
Ray Hilborn, a fisheries scientist who is an expert on global fishing stocks, concurs. He told Fox News, “There is simply no need for arbitrary declaration of Marine Monuments. We have a legal framework that can protect habitats, and rebuild fish stocks that relies on scientific analysis and consultation. If there is a real threat these areas can be closed by the fisheries management councils. Bypassing science and consultation is a very dangerous trend.”
On the other hand, recreational fishing groups that got a waiver from the restrictions hailed the designation as a “thoughtful approach” that “recognizes the importance of allowing the public to access and enjoy these precious areas.”
Officials at the Pew Charitable Trusts, long a leading advocate of marine preserves, declared the occasion “historic for the Atlantic Ocean” in a press release. Lee Crockett, who heads up the U.S. ocean conservation project at Pew, added that “science is clear that setting aside biologically important areas can increase resilience as ocean conditions change.”
One question, though, is now much of a set-aside is actually needed.
Lobstermen’s Association president Grant Moore told Fox News that despite intensive meetings with the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) six months ago and then a month ago, the Administration rejected a fishing industry proposal that the top 450 meters of the ocean in the preserve area be exempted from the zone. That would, he said, have preserved the sensitive corals and other species that were the Administration’s stated concerns.
“Surveys have shown that the shallowest of the corals are more than 360 fathoms (2,160 feet, or about 660 meters) from the surface,” he said. It would have been a win-win for everyone.”
According to red crab fisherman Jon Williams, the fishermen were assured by the CEQ officials that they would be “included in the decision-making process,” but the final decision was given to them “in a phone call from the Administration yesterday.”
According to the fishermen, the first impact of the new designation is going to be to increase fishing pressures elsewhere, as the industry adjusts to the no-go boundaries.
“In all, some 12,000 permitted lobster traps are going to have to go elsewhere,” noted Moore. All told, he said, some 1.5 million pounds of lobster catch annually is affected, and in the end, much of it may come from imports from Canada as a result.
Lobster fishermen had already voluntarily cut back their activity by nearly a third in response to conservation concerns, he said, and then by another 25 per cent more recently.
The no-go designation also created a tricky situation for local Democratic politicians who had worked closely with the fishermen in trying to find an accommodation with the federal bureaucrats, and also have to live with the result.
Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, one of the behind-the-scenes go-betweens, did not answer a request from Fox News for a response to the monument designation. He was quoted in the Boston Globe as calling the decision an “important milestone” for conservation, while observing in muted fashion that he was “concerned that the impacts…on the fishing community of New England were not fully minimized.”
Jon Mitchell, popular mayor of the historic fishing center of New Bedford, MA, who wrote a letter in August to the CEQ expressing his concerns, was only a shade less diplomatic.
He praised the White House as having “sought out more input than is required” in a presidential action, but said such decisions should involve “more robust regulatory processes” under the so-called Magnuson-Stevens Act governing fisheries regulation, which established the regional fisheries management councils, and which, Mitchell said, successfully protected sea canyons elsewhere in the Atlantic “without unduly burdening the fishing industry.”
Regardless of what the fishermen and their elected officials thought, the future could well hold additional White House actions. The Atlantic monument designation was the Administration’s show-piece for a State Department-hosted Our Ocean conference that applauded similar marine preserves established by other countries and encouraged still more in the future.
All of them, and more, would be required to meet a U.N.-sponsored Sustainable Development Goal to protect 10 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2020.
Indeed, at the conference, preserve proponents declared that at least 600 new protected ocean areas would be needed to come half-way close to that goal—and that a better objective might be 30 per cent or even 40 percent of the world’s oceans.