Fishermen Fight to Dismantle First Marine Monument

WASHINGTON (CN) – Unhappy that a Connecticut-sized area off the coast of New England has become a commercial-fishing-free zone, lobstermen and other groups are asking a federal judge to find that President Barack Obama lacked the authority to designate the nation’s first marine monument.

Obama created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument this past September, a move that banned oil and gas exploration within the monument area almost immediately, as well as most commercial fishing. Fishing of lobster and red crab is allowed to continue only for the next seven years.

In a March 7 federal complaint, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association and four other groups say that designation affects nearly 5,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean that has been an important commercial fishery for decades.

“For centuries, the Georges Bank has supported lucrative fisheries,” the complaint states. “The iconic fishing communities of New England and throughout the East Coast sprang up because of the value of this fishery.”

The commercial fishers say restrictions associated with the monument are causing irreparable harm.

“The fishermen are suffering and will continue to suffer a diminution of income, reduced fishing opportunities, and depletion of their investment in their boats and permit,” the complaint states.

Though the Antiquities Act allows presidents to designate parcels of land controlled by the federal government as national monuments, the plaintiffs here say high seas are not included, and that Obama established the monument under pressure by environmental groups.

Jonathan Wood, an attorney for the fishery associations, emphasized in an email that this law is “intended to authorize the President to protect Indian artifacts and other antiquities on federal and Indian lands in the southwest.”

“The statute doesn’t authorize the President to lock fishermen out of huge sections of the ocean,” Wood added.

Moreover, as the complaint puts it, the land area must be limited to “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

The fishery associations say Obama never explained why or how the nearly 5,000 square miles of the monument constitutes land owned or controlled by the federal government, or why the area constitutes “the smallest area compatible with protecting the monument.”

Territorial waters extend only 12 miles off the coast, with an economic zone extending 188 miles out, according to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the lawsuit says that Congress has never ratified.

“Nations enjoy limited regulatory authority over the Exclusive Economic Zone but do not have the level of sovereignty they enjoy within their territories,” the lawsuit states.

Different regulations apply in the economic zone, with the New England Fishery Management Council managing the Georges Bank fishery under the parameters of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The fishery associations say they warned the Council on Environmental Quality that the monument’s establishment could frustrate the council’s efforts to regulate fisheries in a responsible manner, which could result in environmental harm and lead to less sustainable fishing practices.

“By locking fishermen out of this healthy fishery, the monument designation will ironically put pressure on other, less healthy fisheries,” attorney Wood said in an email. “The monument designation will force fishermen to seek out other areas, which are less healthy. It also undermines the collaborative regulatory process that has made this fishery healthy,” he added.

The associations say want the fishery to remain “under the public, collaborative, and science-based process established by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”

“Working with the regional fishery council, the fishermen have reduced the number of permits and equipment in the area, knowing that these costly sacrifices will promote sustainability over the long term,” Wood said. “The monument designation essentially punishes the fishermen for the success of those efforts and undermines the incentives for collaboration going forward,” he added.

Taking issue with the monument’s boundaries, the groups say they “bear little relation to the canyons and seamounts, thereby prohibiting much fishing outside of these areas that would have no impact on the canyons, seamounts, or the coral that grows on them.”

“Similarly, the monument’s canyon unit broadly sweeps in the entire area between the canyons, as well as a significant area closer to shore than the canyons,” the 17-page complaint continues. “Many of these areas are miles from the nearest canyon’s edge and fishing would not adversely affect the canyons.”

Named as defendants are President Donald Trump, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Benjamin Friedman, the deputy undersecretary for Operations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. A Jane Doe chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality is also named as a defendant.

The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the monument is unlawful, and an injunction preventing enforcement of the fishing restrictions. They are represented by attorney Wood and Joshua Thompson with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

Representatives for Trump and the NOAA have not returned emails seeking comment about the lawsuit.

In addition to Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, the other plaintiffs are the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, Garden State Seafood Association and Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance.