President Obama created a new national monument Thursday off the coast of Massachusetts, protecting a nearly 5,000-square-mile area.
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, in the Atlantic Ocean 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, will conserve deep-sea canyons and undersea mountains that host unique ecosystems the Obama administration says are significantly impacted by climate change.
Obama announced his decision to use his unilateral power under the Antiquities Act to create the protected area Thursday at an annual State Department conference on ocean conservation.
It is Obama’s 26th use of the Antiquities Act, through which he has protected more land and water than any other president. It is his third national monument designation in the past month, following the creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument in Maine and the significant expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea marine monument northwest of Hawaii.
The designation “will provide critical protections for a very important ecological resource that supports marine species including deep-sea coral and endangered whales and sea turtles, and has been an area that scientists and other experts have been pointing to increasingly as an area where the ecological system, the undersea system, is both at risk and incredibly precious in terms of what we can learn about the ocean in the years ahead,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday.
Another official said the area “is truly a special place to New England and to the country as a whole,” hosting unique mammal and coral species, among other treasures.
Obama’s designation will allow continued recreational fishing in the area and allow certain commercial fishing for seven years. All other fishing, along with mineral extraction, will be banned.
The idea for the monument has been controversial, ever since conservationists and biologists started to press the federal government to protect the area.
Ahead of Obama’s announcement, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop(R-Utah) slammed the proposal Wednesday in an op-ed piece for The Hill.
He argued that marine monuments like those in New England, Hawaii and a proposed site off the coast of Monterey, Calif., are disastrous for the commercial fishing industry.
“When I visited New Bedford, Massachusetts, the highest-grossing commercial fishing port in the U.S., earlier this summer, we held a roundtable with local industry leaders whose concerns have been tossed aside by the Obama administration. They tried to work on a compromise to protect essential habitat while also protecting one of our nation’s oldest fishing ports, but their efforts have been ignored,” Bishop wrote.
“Our domestic fishing fleets are widely recognized as some of the most sustainable and responsible in the world,” he said. “Yet instead of combatting illegal practices by foreign fleets, this Administration is teaming up with environmental groups on a crusade to kill American jobs by locking up traditional fishing grounds from the Atlantic to the West Pacific.”
Bishop and other congressional Republicans want to severely restrict or eliminate the president’s power to create national monuments without the consent of Congress or the states that host them.
But the administration officials who previewed Obama’s announcement Wednesday said they went to great lengths to accommodate fishermen, including reducing the size of the monument from what was initially proposed.
“We have made a number of decisions in the context of this monument to try to directly speak to mitigating any economic impact that may come along,” an official said.
“The goal is to try to balance critical conservation imperatives in this important ecosystem with an approach that will create a sustainable environment for the fishing industry going forward.”
Environmentalists cheered the news. “The canyons and seamounts area off New England’s coast is one of America’s most unique ocean places,” Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America, said in a statement. “We’re delighted that this vast, wondrous ecosystem will now be permanently protected from drilling, overfishing, and other destructive activities — so that future generations can be just as awestruck by them as we are today.”
The designation follows a proposal last month from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and the rest of the Connecticut delegation, although their proposal was for a larger area to be protected.