The Trump administration’s efforts to reduce or revise national monument areas include a proposal to allow continued commercial fishing in the first U.S. Atlantic Ocean marine monument, which lies about 150 miles off New England’s coast.
Connecticut environmentalists are troubled by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation, and activists are already gearing up for a major legal battle over the fate of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument.
“It’s an incredible biodiversity hotspot,” Peter J. Auster , senior research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium and a professor emeritus with the University of Connecticut’s marine sciences department, said of the area also known as Coral Canyons.
Curt Johnson, executive director of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and Save the Sound, said the plan to continue allowing commercial fishing makes no sense because the monument acts as a “fishery re-establishment zone” where fish populations can be revived without the pressures of human harvesting.
“We will challenge in court any action to roll back the Coral Canyons and Seamounts monument and we expect to win,” said Priscilla Brooks, director of ocean conservation for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation.
But Jon Williams, owner of the Atlantic Red Crab Company in New Bedford, Mass., said he and other commercial fishermen who have harvested crabs and deep sea lobsters from the Coral Canyons region for decades are delighted with the Trump administration’s proposal.
Williams said a ban on commercial fishing in that area could cut the New England harvest of red crabs by 30 percent. “I’m not against management or correct management of the area,” Williams said, arguing that the fishing that has gone on there for 40 years hasn’t created any serious damage.
The oceanic monument was created last year by the Obama administration under the federal Antiquities Act. Fishermen using the area to trap deep sea red crabs and lobsters were given seven years to cease those operations.
Brooks said her group’s legal experts believe that once a national monument is established, it is protected by the Antiquities Act. The president, they say, has no authority to alter the monument’s boundaries or take away its protections.
If Trump accepts Zinke’s recommendations, commercial fishing would also be restored for 62 million acres of coral reefs and islands in the Pacific.
Auster has been exploring and studying the deep water Coral Canyons area of the Atlantic, which includes several undersea mountains, since the 1980s by boat and submarine. He said the area acts as a major resource for a variety of marine mammals, including dolphins, humpback, fin and cei whales. Oceanic birds like puffins depend on the Coral Canyons section for feeding during winter months because of the multitude of fish species that thrive there. The canyons also contain stunning arrays of deep sea corals, Auster said.
“This relatively small area captures an incredible diversity of organisms,” Auster said, in part because the depth of the canyons and height of the underwater mountains provide a variety of marine habitats for different species.
“This is the only entanglement-free zone along the entire East Coast of the U.S.,” Auster said.
Many whales, especially the critically endangered right whales, can become tangled up in fishing lines, nets and trawling equipment, and often become unable to feed or swim properly.
Environmentalists also fear that without the protections of the national monument, the area could become a target for commercial deep sea trawling operations that would damage coral reefs.
“This area represents just 1.5 percent of the exploitable regions in the waters off the U.S. [east coast],” Auster said, adding that one reason the Obama administration agreed to create a national monument there was that it was “minimally used” by commercial fishing operations.
Williams agreed that the Coral Canyons area “represents a tiny percentage” of East Coast fishing areas. “But for individual fisheries, [a ban on commercial harvesting] can have a huge impact,” said Williams, whose boats fish for red crabs as far north as Canada and south to Maryland and Virginia.
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