Why Wouldn’t We Support The New England Marine Monument?

In an effort to revoke, opponents paint the picture that all fishermen are opposed… Well, we aren’t!

Whatever your political leanings, one has to acknowledge that the Obama Administration did something extraordinary last fall. Through the Antiquities Act, it protected almost five thousand miles of an incredibly biodiverse piece of ocean off of New England from large-scale extraction, while preserving recreational fishing access.

This was the first such action to protect large-scale ecosystems on the East Coast, and it was generally supported by the recreational fishing community.  On the commercial side? Not so much. And so now, they are teaming up with anti-public lands politicians in Congress in a coordinated attack on the monument, with the intent to revoke it or significantly reduce protections.

Marine Monument update 2The New England Marine Monument covers Oceanographer, Gilbert, and Lydonia Canyons, plus four rare seamounts (Bear, Physalia, Mytilus and Retriever) well offshore of that. The closest point from land is a good 150 miles. So, what we’re talking about here is not a largely accessible or heavily fished area.

Yes, the monument has displaced some long-range pelagic long-liners. This is a fishery characterized by deployments of upwards of 30 miles of baited hooks (generally over 10,000) on a single line, which soak sometimes for a couple of days. It’s generally a destructive, non-selective way of large-scale extraction of tunas and billfish, fraught with bycatch/dead discards… pilot whales, dolphins, seabirds, turtles, sharks etc. I absolutely have no problem with its exclusion here, and I wouldn’t think most anglers would.

Regardless, this isn’t an area that seems particularly important to the pelagic longline fishery. According to the available data, the Monument covers only about 0.3 percent of the total area the pelagic longline fleet actively fishes. What they catch here is apparently about one percent of their total revenue.

The small-mesh squid-whiting/bottom trawl fleet had fished some in Monument waters too. This is another-large scale fishery targeting and harvesting a pretty important forage source for just about every predator in the ocean. This fishery too has a pretty big bycatch/dead discard rate… For the squid fleet, around 35% of its catch actually. That’s pretty significant. So yeah, I have no problem excluding them from this area also, nor do I think any other conservation minded angler would. Again though, according to catch data, less than one percent of squid fishing occurred around the heads of the protected canyons, zero percent around the seamounts. So this area isn’t terribly significant to the squid fleet either.

Red-crab is allowed to continue in the monument area for the next 7 years to give the industry time to adjust. Indeed, crab traps can hit and knock over corals that are hundreds, maybe over a thousand years old. So absolutely, there’s a rationale for their exclusion. That fishery also occurs from North Carolina to the U.S.-Canada border. According to the New England Council, the management area with the canyons the red crab fishery will have to vacate is the least productive one for that fishery, and the vast majority of red crab landings are from outside the monument area. So I can’t imagine it would be hugely impactful to that fishery either.

Which brings us to the offshore lobster industry, which also has seven more years to fish here before they have to relocate. Based on a recent survey conducted by fishery managers, it’s only a handful of lobster boats fish that fish in the monument area (five to eight boats). The entire lobster management area accounts for only 3 percent of the federal permits and 8 percent of the total lobster catch, and the Canyons and Seamounts area is only a very small fraction of that.

New England Marine Monument chartThe point here is that yes, there will be some impact (in the form of displaced fisheries… note, they can still fish everywhere else and there is no reduction in quota), yet given the scale, I really can’t see how it will “seriously cripple the American fishing industry”, nor how it will “undermine the regional economy”, as some are claiming. I mean that’s clearly hyperbole with the intention to sway an outcome.

I do understand the commercial opposition to this, as they likely believe such exclusion sets a bad precedent. But it sure doesn’t seem to be catastrophic.

When you boil it all down, this was a simple cost/benefit analysis. The administration could permanently protect 5000-miles of rare, unique habitat (not simply from existing fisheries, but from developing ones, not to mention oil and gas exploration, mining, cable laying and whatever any other resource-extracting industry that’s likely to pop up in the coming decades) with what all the objective analysis shows to be minimal economic impact. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?

Yet, there is a very real push right now to repeal or shrink the monument, or to allow commercial fishing again. A Congressional Oversight Hearing on Examining the Creation and Management of Marine Monuments and Sanctuaries was held last week. With only one witness in support, it certainly looked like the intent of the hearing was to discredit the Monument, and put pressure on the Trump Administration to remove or alter it.

Committee Chair and Utah Rep Rob Bishop and Rep. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen from American Samoa sent a letter to the President earlier this month requesting that he “act swiftly and effectively to remove all marine monument fishing prohibitions”.

The Council Coordinating Committee – which consists of the chairs, vice chairs, and executive directors from each regional fishery management council – also submitted a letter to the president, claiming that such designations usurped the deliberate, public management process inherent in Council procedure.

While I certainly understand that concern, one has to acknowledge that the New England Council, which is unquestionably dominated by commercial fishing interests, was not likely to put such large-scale, comprehensive protections in place, the intent of which is to protect entire ecosystems. More than likely, they’d just develop a rationale to justify particular types of large-scale fishing in the Monument area. Regardless, the Council has no authority over non-fishing impacts. There’s nothing they could do, save maybe write a letter, should an energy development, mining, cable-laying etc., proposal come through.

So yes, there’s ample rationale for such comprehensive protection that exceeds Council action IMO.

A few weeks ago, a coalition of commercial fishing organizations initiated a law suit, seeking to deep-six the Marine Monument, claiming that the President “exceeded his power under the Antiquities Act”. But I mean really, the Antiquities Act purposefully gave Presidents the authority to establish national monuments. If it’s not being used to protect large scale habitat, then what the hell should it be used for?

And this whole idea that the protections were not based on science? Well that’s bull (expletive). At the hearing, Representative Beyer made sure to put into the record the several large binders of scientific studies supporting the monument. There is also the huge body of work out there supporting the utility of large scale marine protected areas in general. I mean, if you don’t hammer an area, ecosystems remain largely intact. In case you didn’t just understand that intuitively, the science is pretty clear on that point. And over and over again, the science has shown the “spillover” benefits to existing fisheries. Plus, there is a wide consensus among climate and ocean scientists that such a protected area is an important hedge against climate change.

Well, what about recreational fishing? Come on man… any take on a recreational scale, particularly in an area so far offshore, is much, much smaller than commercial harvest, and WAY less impactful, if there’s any real impact at all. Allowing such low-impact recreation use is pretty consistent with national parks across the nation, and it just isn’t comparable to large-scale commercial extraction.

Yes, there are still those few anglers who believe that “they’re coming for us next”. There’s not much you can tell those folks to convince them that there is no intention of excluding anglers, now, or anytime in the future IMO. But those minds appear to be already made up.

Yet, for the most part, if you explain all of the above to any rational angler, they generally get it, and are full-on in support of such a monument designation.

But those recreational voices in support generally aren’t being heard.

That needs to change. Before what may be one of the most significant conservation actions in our lifetimes is overturned.






After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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