National Monument in Atlantic Ocean Supported by Courts

In a major defeat for the fishing industry, a federal judge ruled on October 5 that the Northeast Canyons and Seamount Marine National Monument created in 2016 were created under proper legal authority – and eligible for protection.

The ROV Deep Discoverer explores the Northeast Canyons during the 2013 NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer expedition. Photo: NOAA

The unique Northeast Canyons and Seamount Marine National Monument was created by President Obama using a 1906 law passed by Theodore Roosevelt. It restricted access to commercial fishing in the 5,000 square mile designated area, to protect the natural habitats and the many creatures living within the community there.

In 2017, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association and three other groups sued against the creation of the protected area. They asserted the oceans, even if they fall within the nation’s legal boundaries, could not be considered eligible for protection under that 1906 law. The act refers to “small parcels of land” and the commercial fishing groups claimed maritime habitats could never be considered as land parcels.

The October 5 ruling by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg described the Canyons and Seamounts of the Northwestern Atlantic Ocean as a “region of great abundance and diversity as well as stark geographic relief”. The opinion says that, “Dating back 100 million years – much older than Yosemite and Yellowstone – they are home to ‘vulnerable ecological communities’ and ‘vibrant ecosystems’. … And, as was true of the hallowed grounds on which Roosevelt waxed poetic, ‘much remains to be discovered about these unique, isolated environments’.” As it dismissed the case from the commercial fishing groups, the ruling says that, “Just as President Roosevelt had the authority to establish the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908, so President Obama could establish the Canyons and Seamounts Monument in 2016”.

In commenting about the litigation, Bonnie Brady, the executive director of one of the plaintiffs, the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, expressed strong dissatisfaction with the ruling. Brady said that the areas did not need further protection as a National Monument, since the region “has always been protected while being commercially fished with federal sustainability and essential habitat regulations through the federal Magnuson Stevens Act and the regional fishery management councils”. Brady also expressed concern that presidents could in the future choose to use the act to shut down other sustainable fishing areas without a federal review.

The court’s decision wisely turned the tables on this logic. In protecting the area as a National Monument, the region is protected against widespread fishing, precisely because the habitat and those unique living species are best preserved without harvesting for financial purposes. The oceans themselves are a unique area already under stress from warming, ocean acidification, and more, and preserving some of these special habitats provides a unique opportunity to allow nature to take back some of what we as a human species have taken for centuries. Commercial fishing entities, no matter how careful they might be, will do harm to countless species and no combination of acts that regulate them can prevent that harm completely.

In this specific region, located off the famed Georges Bank fishing area offshore New England, includes three unique "seamounts". They are the Bear Seamount, the Physalia Seamount, and the Retriever seamount. These unusual seafloor structures provide for an unusual and often rare collection of sea life to gather and thrive.

That these regions happen to be “under water” makes them in many ways more special than many above-ground protected areas, since there are so few of them. The oceans, reefs, and the complex seabed floors are the place where life itself began. They also provide a vital part of the entire world’s food chain and living ecosystems. Protecting such areas could turn out to be vital for so many reasons, not the least of which could be by allowing those which live within it to rebuild their numbers after centuries of fishing, no matter how well managed.

The plaintiffs plan to appeal the case. There has so far been no comment on the ruling from the Commerce Department or the White House.