Return of Fishing in Atlantic Marine Monument Spurs Legal Challenge

(Screenshot of footage courtesy of OceanX and Bloomberg Philanthropies)

(CN) — Two weeks after President Donald Trump opened the door to commercial fishing in scientifically important ocean waters off the coast of Cape Cod, environmentalists shot back Wednesday with a federal complaint.

“From our perspective, President Trump seemed to know, actually, very little about what the purpose of the monument was or what it was trying to accomplish when he signed his proclamation,” Conservation Law Foundation senior counsel Peter Shelley said in a phone call Wednesday.

The foundation is one of three environmental watchdog groups spearheading the suit in Washington, alongside the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity. They are also joined by marine scientist Zack Klyver, a naturalist and conservationist passionate about doing environmental research in the protected area.

Home to deep sea corals as well as endangered whales and sea turtles, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

President Barack Obama designated the roughly 5,000 square-mile area as a national monument in 2016, but President Donald Trump revoked its core protections on June 5. 

For the fishing industry — members of whom were invited to Trump’s announcement in Bangor, Maine — the move was a welcome one. Jon Williams, owner of the Atlantic Red Crab Company, questioned how the conservationists could reconcile the new protections against decades of activity in the area.

“We’ve been in there for 40 years,” Jon Williams, owner of the Atlantic Red Crab Company, told Trump. “And so if the environmental groups can deem the place pristine and we’ve been operating in that area for 40 years and they can’t find any evidence where we’ve done any damage, I would say we’ve been pretty good stewards of that 5,000 miles.”

Shelley, the conservationist, meanwhile noted that Obama’s designation recognized both the area’s ecological importance and its vulnerability to fishing and other commercial activities like oil and gas drilling.

“The monument is the only place on the Atlantic, where the scientists can have a reference site available to them that isn’t heavily disturbed by human fishing and other activities, so that they can see what’s happening to the ocean without the disturbances caused by human activity, interfering with their understanding,” Shelley said. “It really is central to our ability to manage our oceans going forward and making sure we understand the threats that climate change is presenting to our oceans.”

Opening the area to commercial fishing, the 52-page suit says, is “incompatible with the proper care and management of the objects of scientific or historic interest identified in the 2016 proclamation and protected by the monument’s reservation.”

“Commercial fishing is one of the activities that President Obama determined specifically would harm the objects of scientific interest in the monument,” Shelley added. “Fishing gear that are trying to cross the bottom of the ocean, or heavy offshore pots that are used for lobstering and crabbing crush any coral that they come in contact with and some of those cars have been growing for thousands of years, and may never recover from that damage.

Vertical lines cast in lobstering and crabbing operations could entangle endangered whales and turtles living in the ecosystem, the lawyer noted.

“Even one cask of a trawl from the fishing boat can destroy literally thousands of years of ecological activity,” he said.

Coinciding with Wednesday’s lawsuit, the New England Fishing Management Council unveiled new steps it has taken to protect fragile corals, specifically by prohibiting the use of bottom-tending commercial fishing gear in areas where corals are common.

“We’ve said from the beginning that fishery management councils are best suited to address the complicated tradeoffs involved in managing fisheries, and we appreciate regaining our control to do so in the monument area,” John Quinn, chairman of the council, said in a statement.

The group has slammed reports that the newly restored fishing privileges are unrestricted, saying concerns over the move have been overblown.

“The monument area will not be ‘wide open to industrial fishing,’” Tom Nies, the council’s executive director, said in a statement.

“The council worked hard to walk that fine line between providing strong habitat and coral protections in the area while balancing the social and economic impacts to the industry,” Nies continued. “We don’t think the recent criticism from the environmental community since the announcement of the second monument proclamation is entirely warranted. Existing fishery management measures provide strong protections for Lydonia and Oceanographer Canyons, and with the coral amendment, we’re preventing commercial fishing from expanding beyond its historical footprint. The council took this step while carefully weighing the associated impacts. We look forward to the implementation our amendment.”

Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, explained in a statement Wednesday that the monument was created to permanently safeguard an “amazing ecosystem and vulnerable species like the endangered sperm whale.” 

“Presidents can’t be allowed to gut protections by decree as a favor to commercial fishermen,” she said.

While Obama issued protections for the area under the Antiquities Act in 2016, the lawsuit alleges that this act — which authorizes declare historic landmarks and objects of scientific interest on federal land to be national monuments — does not give subsequent presidents the power to revoke protections.

“Congress did not give the president the authority to revoke or modify a monument in a way that runs counter to the purpose of the monument’s creation,” Shelley said. “That’s the power that Congress has reserved to itself, so Congress could modify this monument and eliminate this monument if it chose to do so but there’s actually an incredibly strong support for this monument among the elected officials, and so we don’t see that happening.”

In 2017, fishing industry trade groups filed a federal lawsuit in hopes of reopening the monument to commercial fishing. The suit was shut down by an appeals court in 2019.

The Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior did not immediately return requests for comment for this piece.

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