The proclamation last week by President Obama of the new Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in New England protected 4,913 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean at the southern edge of Georges Bank from human activities with a stroke of the pen. It is the first national monument to be declared in the ocean; the monument encompasses three deep submarine canyons and four seamounts that rise more than 7,000 feet above the ocean floor. 

Is it a good thing? Yes, because the two areas feature a variety of ancient and fragile deepwater corals and offer habitat to a wide variety of marine species, including sperm whales and endangered sea turtles. Is it a bad thing? Yes, because by making the declaration the president has circumvented the existing regulatory agencies whose numerous layers of laws and regulations already constrain activities in those areas.

President Obama acted without Congressional approval under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The Act allows a president to protect areas of “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” At the time the Act was passed by Congress, public lands in the Western states were being stripped of archeological relics. The intent of the Act was to allow the president to move quickly, by himself, to protect these sites. All national monuments receive permanent funding. Their status cannot be revoked by subsequent presidents, and they require an act of Congress to reverse. 

The designated monument lies in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States. That means the U.S. government has sovereign rights over the submerged lands and water column out to 200 nautical miles of the States’ three-mile limit. The U.S. government ceded its authority to manage commercial fishing in the EEZ to the eight regional fisheries councils under the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act of 1977 (ours is the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC). The NEFMC is notorious for its labyrinthine process as council members, drawn from all the New England states, debate and vote on arcane amendments and addendums to nine complex fisheries management plans for the region. The council is slow, often seems to favor fishermen over the fish, and is the bête noire of environmental organizations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts or the Conservation Law Foundation, which has brought suit against NEFMC and the federal National Fisheries Management Service many times. 

The National Monument proclamation comes at a time when the NEFMC is concluding its own work on a significant plan to protect deep-sea corals. The Omnibus Deep Sea Coral Amendment would apply to all existing fisheries management plans and would cover 15 deep-sea canyons on Georges Bank in addition to the four within the Monument. In a press release shortly after the announcement, NEFMC Chairman Terry Stockwell, who is also the director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said, “The position of all eight Councils is that we still prefer to be allowed to continue managing fishing activity and establishing essential fish habitat designations under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.” Mild words from a council that had just seen its authority completely overshadowed. 

The impact to most Maine fishermen is likely to be slight. But to those who fish the area for lobster and red crab, it will be significant. The proclamation gives those fishermen seven years to transition out of the area. Fishermen targeting Jonah crab, whiting, squid and other species, however, have just 60 days to do so. 

One certainly can acknowledge the objective of the president’s action has merit. As the proclamation itself says, “The canyon and seamount area contains objects of historic and scientific interest that are situated upon lands owned or controlled by the Federal Government. These objects are the canyons and seamounts themselves, and the natural resources and ecosystems in and around them…. These canyons and seamounts are home to at least 54 species of deep-sea corals, which live at depths of at least 3,900 meters below the sea surface. The corals, together with other structure-forming fauna such as sponges and anemones, create a foundation for vibrant deep-sea ecosystems, providing food, spawning habitat, and shelter for an array of fish and invertebrate species.” The steep slopes of the canyons and seamounts make the areas fertile because “oceanographic currents that encounter them create localized eddies and result in upwelling. Currents lift nutrients, like nitrates and phosphates, critical to the growth of phytoplankton from the deep to sunlit surface waters. These nutrients fuel an eruption of phytoplankton and zooplankton that form the base of the food chain. Aggregations of plankton draw large schools of small fish and then larger animals that prey on these fish, such as whales, sharks, tunas, and seabirds.”

But do the ends justify the means? Through the NEFMC process and under other federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, even the Submerged Lands Act, human activities, such as fishing or oil exploration, must go through public review. The process is cumbersome but, to use the often overused term, it is “transparent,” meaning that the public is involved in or can be party to nearly every step of the process. 

In a joint letter to President Obama earlier this summer, several New England fisheries organizations pointed this fact out very clearly. “The management measures adopted to date have been the result of countless discussions, public hearings, rulings and collaborative efforts of scientists, commercial fishermen, state and federal fisheries managers, and other important stakeholders in the New England region. The key point is that these efforts have all been taken in an open, democratic, deliberative, public process that allows individuals to offer public comments on proposed restrictions, and offer suggestions on how to mitigate negative impacts.” 

We have come to realize that the world’s oceans, which once appeared boundless and immutable, are more delicate than previously imagined. Due to the warming climate, they are now changing and in some regions, such as the Gulf of Maine, changing rapidly. President Obama grew up in Hawaii and feels a clear linkage to the sea. 

“The notion that the ocean I grew up with is not something I can pass on to my kids and my grandkids is unacceptable,” he said at the 2016 Our Ocean conference in Washington last week. “It’s unimaginable. And so the investment that all of us together make here today is vital for our economy, it’s vital for our foreign policy, it’s vital for our security, but it’s also vital for our spirit. It’s vital to who we are.”

Yet this might not be the best, nor most successful, method for ensuring the ocean’s continued prosperity.