First published in Landings, October, 2015.
In mid-September a coalition of environmental organizations, including the Conservation Law Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, petitioned President Barack Obama to designate Cashes Ledge and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, a chain of undersea formations about 150 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, as National Marine Monuments. These would be the first such monuments on the East Coast. The proposal produced immediate opposition from fishing groups, lobstering associations, and Maine Governor Paul LePage.
The Antiquities Act
President Obama, like past presidents, can create a national monument with a stroke of his pen, due to the language of the 1906 Antiquities Act. The Act allows a president to create a national monument to protect areas of “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” At the time the Act was passed by Congress, public lands in the western states were being stripped of archeological relics. The intent of the Act was to allow the president to act quickly, by himself, to protect these sites. National Monuments receive permanent funding. Their status cannot be revoked by subsequent presidents, and would require an act of Congress to reverse.
George W. Bush created the largest marine national monument in the nation’s history when he designated the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument in 2006, a vast stretch of ocean approximately 87,000 square miles in size. Obama expanded that monument in 2014 to 490,000 square miles in total.
The New England Fisheries Management Council
Many fishermen and fishing organizations find the idea of the national monument designation troubling, in part because Cashes Ledge is under the jurisdiction of the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC). Bottom trawling and dredging have been banned there for more than a decade although it remains open to lobstering.
Furthermore, the Council’s Omnibus Fisheries Habitat Amendment, after twelve years in development, was approved by the Council in June with a reconfigured Cashes Ledge closure and additional protections for Ammen Rock.
Those within the commercial fishing world, and some outside that world, see the action as an effort by environmental groups to circumvent the Council process [see John Sackton’s column in this issue]. A unilateral action by President Obama would permanently end all fishing in the area and remove Cashes Ledge, and the offshore seamount and canyon system, from further oversight by the Council. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held a “Town Hall” meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, on September 14 to hear public comments on the proposals.
Where is it?
There are two areas being considered for the national monument. Cashes Ledge, well-known to Gulf of Maine fishermen, is located about 80 miles southeast of Portland. The highest peak in Cashes Ledge, Ammen Rock, holds the deepest and largest kelp forest along the Atlantic seaboard. The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area encompasses five undersea canyons and four seamounts approximately 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The four seamounts, which are extinct underwater volcanoes, rise as high as 7,700 feet above the ocean floor. The canyons and seamounts are noted for the diversity and abundance of deep-sea corals, many of which are hundreds if not thousands of years old.
Who is against the Cashes Ledge nomination and why
In a joint letter to President Obama opposing the proposal, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, and other lobstering groups stated, “The only fixed gear commercial fishery currently allowed [in the Cashes Ledge area] is the lobster fishery, which is managed under the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Act, via the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and NOAA Fisheries. These organizations have determined that the placement of lobster pots on the bottom has negligible impact on the habitat/bottom as Cashes Ledge continues to thrive even with lobster fishing taking place.”
Furthermore, the organizations note that imposition of national monument status on these federal waters and lands would completely circumvent the Council process which, although slow-moving and often frustrating, reflects multiple perspectives. “The management measures adopted to date have been the result of countless discussions, public hearings, rulings and collaborative efforts of scientists, commercial fishermen, state and federal fisheries managers, and other important stakeholders in the New England region. The key point is that these efforts have all been taken in an open, democratic, deliberative, public process that allows individuals to offer public comments on proposed restrictions, and offer suggestions on how to mitigate negative impacts.”
In a separate letter to NOAA administrators, Senator Susan Collins and Representative Bruce Poliquin also objected to any unilateral action by the President and NOAA. The two officials stated, “A National Marine Monument designation in the Cashes Ledge region could well undermine the NEFMC’s longstanding, cooperative, and effective management systems and its years of hard work to develop balanced management plans in the region. We are particularly troubled to learn that NOAA did not consult with the NEFMC about its consideration of a National Marine Monument designation prior to public notice of a Town Hall meeting.”
The designation process for a new National Monument is murky. “There are few, if any, steps that need to be followed when designating a monument,” said Terry Stockwell, chair of the NEFMC. “I’m not sure who will review the comments [from the Providence meeting]. I suspect it will be the White House Council on Environmental Quality. According to NOAA we will all be reading the announcement, if it’s forthcoming, at the same time.”