April Showdown Looming for Battle Over Atlantic Ocean Monument

WASHINGTON (CN) – Fisherman and lobstermen reeled in a temporary victory after a federal court agreed to lift a 10-month stay on a lawsuit that seeks to reverse Obama-era protections for the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

In September 2016, former President Barack Obama used powers under the Antiquities Act to designate the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument.

The 5,000-square-mile monument, rich with deep coral and home to sperm whales, sea turtles and dolphins, is located just off the Georges Bank near Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The Obama-era order closed off the area to commercial fisherman, except for a handful of crabbers who were grandfathered into the deal and allowed to continue trawling for just seven years more until fishing activity would be completely barred in the region.

The plaintiffs who originally challenged the monument designation in March 2017 include the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Atlantic Offshore Lobsterman’s Association, the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, the Rhode Island Fisherman’s Alliance and the Garden State Seafood Association.

In their original lawsuit, the groups claimed Obama “exceeded his power under the Antiquities Act” when cordoning off the ocean acreage.

They argued the sea is not “land owned or controlled by the Federal government and thus not within the president’s proclaiming authority.”

“Unless a permanent injunction is issued to forbid the implementation of the proclamation’s fishing prohibitions, plaintiffs are and will continue to be irreparably harmed … and will continue to suffer a diminution of income, reduced fishing opportunities and depletion of their investment in their boats and permits,” the March 2017 complaint states.

This March 15, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg finally agreed to allow the fisherman’s lawsuit to continue, effectively turning up  pressure on the Trump administration to act.

Last September, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Monument designation be put on hold for further review.

According to the Associated Press, Zinke suggested that protections for the Northeast Canyons – along with designations for the Pacific Remote Islands, just south of Hawaii and the Rose Atoll near American Samoa – could be workable.

Zinke was reportedly willing to acquiesce to the size of the monuments ordered by Obama, so long as commercial fisherman continue to receive access to the waters anyway.

Judge Boasberg’s lifting of the stay places President Donald Trump directly in the mix: he must either follow Zinke’s recommendation or allow the monument battle to be duked out in the courts.

The federal government has until April 16 to respond.

In addition to Zinke and Trump, defendants also named in the complaint include Secretary of Department of Commerce Wilbur Ross Jr.; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association deputy under secretary Benjamin Friedman and whomever currently sits in as chairman for the Council on Environmental Quality.

The chair is currently vacant.

Representatives for the Interior Department and the Massachusetts Lobsterman’s Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Brad Sewell, senior attorney and fisheries expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Courthouse News Tuesday that his organization stands at the ready to defend marine monuments from encroachment.

“These public waters belong to the American people and we stand ready to defend … centuries-old coral, endangered whales and other precious marine life this special ocean area encompasses,” Sewell said. “Attacking Antiquities Act protection of our marine monuments is not only an attack on our natural heritage that we safeguard in order to pass onto future generations, but it is a blow to businesses and the whole coastal economy that relies on healthy oceans and sustainable fisheries.”

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