One month ago, environmental groups were strategizing over their latest bid: Get the Obama administration to create its first marine monument off New England.
They had talks with fishing groups, lawmakers and think tanks. At the end of August, they exchanged emails over their progress -- and in one, the president of the Conservation Law Foundation warned everyone to keep quiet about the possibility of a breakthrough at the upcoming Our Ocean Conference in Chile.
"I hope no one is talking about Chile to the outside world," CLF Interim President Peter Shelley wrote. "It's one of the few advantages we may have to know that it could happen sooner rather than later."
The email showed up in response to a public records request that Saving Seafood filed with the office of Maine Gov. Paul LePage's. The advocacy group -- which represents fishermen opposed to the monument -- sent the emails to Greenwire yesterday, asserting that they confirm "rumors" of an impending monument announcement from the White House.
Such an announcement would certainly make waves. The proposed monument is small and sees little activity today, but it is near prime fishing grounds. House Republicans have also added the proposal to their arsenal of criticism over the White House's use of the Antiquities Act (E&E Daily, Sept. 30).
But Shelley, in an interview today, said the email was just hopeful speculation. With the conference coming up, environmental groups had hoped to convince the Obama administration that the New England marine monument was shovel-ready and ideal for a conference announcement.
"The time was pretty short to pull it off. We thought there might be an opportunity we could get them to think about these areas for an announcement in conjunction with the Our Ocean Conference," Shelley said. "We were trying to keep that quiet because we didn't want to give the opposition more of an advantage. The more time they had, the more opportunity they would have to lobby, to fight it, to organize against it."
Chile is set to host the second Our Ocean Conference in Valparaíso next week. The State Department hosted the first one last year -- and used it as an opportunity to announce that Obama would drastically expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (Greenwire, June 17).
Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, said rumors that the White House would make an announcement at the conference have been making the rounds for a few weeks.
"Given that last summer the Pacific monument expansion announcement took place at the State Department oceans summit, that seemed in keeping with previous actions," Vanasse said. "We don't put a lot of stock in Washington rumors; however, whenever our various [Freedom of Information Act] filings yielded this document, it seemed to be in sync with the rumors around town."
The creation of monuments is usually shrouded in secrecy. Presidents can unilaterally create them under the Antiquities Act, a century-old law that requires no public process and no congressional approval.
Shelley called the process a "black hole." So environmental groups, he said, framed their campaign off the assumption that the Obama administration would want to make a big announcement at next week's conference -- and that it might consider the New England monument if there was a strong show of support.
CLF worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pew Charitable Trusts and other groups to organize an event at the New England Aquarium in Boston in early September. More than 600 people showed up to see new footage of the underwater canyons and seamounts that the groups want protected under a marine monument designation.
"Our coalition of organizations had hoped that the president would see this unprecedented show of support -- indeed the largest event to support marine conservation ever held in New England -- as a springboard for action," said Peter Baker, Pew's director of U.S. oceans in the Northeast, in an email today. Environmental groups have since collected more than 160,000 signatures of support and submitted them to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But that optimism appears to have faded. Both Shelley and Baker said they do not expect the White House to make an announcement next week. While the groups have sent the proposal to the White House and officials within the State Department, "we have gotten no commitment or agreement or even a sign" that any decision is upcoming, Shelley said.
Opponents and supporters of the monument, however, believe the Obama administration is at least considering it. NOAA held a town hall on the idea earlier this month, and hundreds showed up to make comments (Greenwire, Sept. 17).
Environmentalists say a marine monument is the only way to ensure protection for unique canyons and seamounts that are home to deep-sea corals and a variety of wildlife. Commercial fishermen say protections put in place by the New England Fishery Management Council are sufficient, despite the fact that the council can only prevent fishing and not other resource extraction or development.
Saving Seafood's Vanasse pointed to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which recently protected similar canyons offshore after fishing groups and environmentalists came together. Members of the council and the Garden State Seafood Association are set to receive an award for that work, along with some of the same conservationists who want a marine monument in New England.
"At the same time that conservation groups are praising those cooperative efforts, they're attempting to circumvent that same process in New England, which I find hypocritical," Vanasse said.