Obama admin mulls marine monument off New England

By Emily Yehle | 09/17/2015 01:09 PM EDT

The Obama administration appears to be considering a marine monument off the coast of New England, with federal officials holding a "town hall" meeting on the idea earlier this week.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration organized the meeting in Providence, R.I. More than 100 people attended — with some estimates exceeding 300 — to debate the protection of deep-sea canyons and underwater mountains 150 miles offshore.

Environmental groups proposed the monument just two weeks ago, urging President Obama to use the Antiquities Act to permanently protect almost 5,000 square nautical miles (Greenwire, Sept. 1). Such requests are not unusual as Obama nears the end of his term and ramps up his use of the act.

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But this time, the proposal came from a coalition of some of the largest conservation groups. Among them: the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, the Conservation Law Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and Environment America. Other groups also voiced their support.

Within days, NOAA announced a town hall to "discuss permanent protections" off New England. The agency has been vague on details; it has not specified that the discussion will inform the White House for a possible marine monument.

But the agency is not proposing a marine sanctuary, according to spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton. Such sanctuaries, which are created and managed by NOAA, can take years to materialize.

"NOAA hasn’t proposed anything," Clayton said in an email before Tuesday night’s public meeting. "We’re holding this town hall because there’s been interest from a number of groups on many types of protections. The public meeting is an opportunity for stakeholders to provide input."

The creation of a national monument does not require public comment — and, as a result, lacks a defined process. Under the Antiquities Act, the president can unilaterally protect an area without congressional input. That has drawn criticism from Republicans who say the century-old law gives the executive branch unchecked powers.

But presidents often want to get the lay of the land (or water) first. Before Obama officially expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument last year, he proposed it — and solicited public comments on the idea.

A marine monument off New England promises to be more controversial. Though it is minuscule in size compared with the Pacific Remote Islands, it is far closer to people who may later profit from its resources.

Commercial fishermen have already come out in opposition. A petition signed by hundreds in the industry asserts that declaring the area a national monument would shut out stakeholders and prevent "meaningful outside input."

"It makes it less likely that local voices are heard in the deliberations, narrows the decision-making process from broadly democratic to single-handed, and in consequence disregards crucial stakeholder input and expertise," the petition says. "It ultimately results in a regulatory process that is not responsive to feedback and is not accountable to the people who are most affected by it."

Specifically, fishermen argue that such protections should come from the New England Fishery Management Council. But the council only has jurisdiction over fishing, and even then, it needs approval from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Its track record for protection is also controversial: In June, it voted to shrink protected fish habitat (Greenwire, June 17).

Environmental groups say the proposed area needs stronger — and more permanent — protections. If made into a national monument, activities such as oil extraction and mining would also be prohibited.

"Even if the council is doing its job perfectly, it has no mandate to consider natural beauty, no mandate to consider scientific value, and no mandate to protect biodiversity or to protect jobs other than fishing jobs," Conservation Law Foundation President Bradley Campbell said at the meeting, according to the group’s blog. "So there comes a time when there are resources that are so exceptional, they’re outside the stove pipe of any given agency — and that’s what the Antiquities Act is there for."

Potential horse trading

Environmentalists want five canyons and four seamounts protected. The canyons can be deeper than the Grand Canyon and are home to deep-sea corals that harbor a variety of sea life. The seamounts are hidden mountains, rising as much as 7,000 feet off the ocean floor. All are relatively untouched and have only been explored recently.

But in announcing the town hall, NOAA left out two canyons: Heezen and Nygren canyons. Instead, it specified that it wanted comment on the three canyons — Oceanographer, Gilbert and Lydonia — and four seamounts that make up a contiguous area.

Asked why, Clayton said the agency only included the areas it is "most interested in hearing about from the public." She emphasized that NOAA still welcomes comments on other areas.

The notice also left out Cashes Ledge, the most controversial area in the environmental groups’ proposal. The underwater mountain is home to commercially important fish. While it is currently closed to most fishing, some fishermen are hopeful that the New England Fishery Management Council may open it back up in the future.

Several people who attended the meeting said they left with the impression that Cashes Ledge is off the table for a potential marine monument. Though NOAA officials welcomed comment on it — and many attendees spoke in favor and against — the agency has also not focused on it.

Tuesday’s meeting, scheduled for two hours, went on for almost four, according to those who attended. Peter Baker, Pew’s director of U.S. oceans in the Northeast, said he remains optimistic that the White House will move forward with protections.

"I think with any monument, whether on land or in the water, there are some people concerned with their economic interests," Baker said. But those in opposition, he added, seem more concerned with the process under the Antiquities Act; the importance of protecting the canyons and seamounts came under less fire.

Indeed, recreational fishing groups have voiced less opposition than the commercial industry. In a letter to administration officials this week, several groups — including the American Sportfishing Association and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation — instead urged any monument to preserve the right of anglers to fish.

Obama made that allowance in the Pacific Remote Islands monument, and the groups are hopeful that he would follow suit in New England for anglers who catch migratory species like yellowfin tuna and marlin.

"Recreational fishing for these species takes place near the ocean surface," they wrote. "It appears that the primary purpose for the current marine monument proposal in New England is to protect bottom habitat that is thousands of feet below sea level. Because there is no interaction between the type of recreational fishing that occurs in these areas and the bottom habitat for which protection is being considered, there is simply no justification for closing these public waters to recreational fishing."

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