Five Years Later, the Value of Marine National Monuments is Clearer than Ever

Five years ago, I was an eager, freshly-minted college graduate beginning my first full-time job (okay, paid internship) at the international oceans protection group Oceana. My first assignment was to take a stab at writing a letter to NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) voicing the NGO’s support for the designation of a new national monument: Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine Monument. President Obama signed the monument into existence on September of 2016 — it was the first and remains the only marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

Through decades of policy experimentation and scientific study, we now know that protecting large swaths of ocean using tools like Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Marine Monuments is an objectively good idea. Not only do such measures improve the overall health of the marine ecosystem (from which we derive many long-term benefits — for example, the ocean is the largest carbon sink on the planet and many scientists believe our next biomedical breakthrough is likely to come from the deep sea), but they also directly benefit humans in the short-run by improving the productivity our fisheries.[1]

Despite the economic and ecological benefits of protection, President Trump has once again doubled down on appeasing industry groups at the expense of the public. On June 5th, a Friday, and three days before World Oceans Day, President Trump issued a Proclamation Modifying the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument that removes the prohibition of commercial fishing within the National Monument. The legality of this proclamation is questionable, and at least one major environmental non-profit has already vowed to sue.

The shameless opportunism this Administration embodies in its willingness to use the ongoing racism and COVID-19 pandemics as cover for pushing bad policy should nauseate us all. It is unfortunately exactly the sort of behavior we have come to expect.

In honor of World Oceans Day and the natural wonders we are continuing to discover, I’d like to share the original text of the advocacy letter supporting the creation of this very special National Monument. I hope that you can find some solace in this momentary escape from the chaos and pain of our current national moment, and that it gives you yet another reason to vote this November.

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Dear [Directors]:

Thank you for your leadership of the National Marine Sanctuary program. I am writing to express the support of Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation, for establishing a new national marine sanctuary to protect the seamounts and deep water coral canyons along the Atlantic eastern seaboard.

This unique seascape is home to dozens of coral and sponge species that provide invaluable habitat for the marine life that graces our waters and allows the New England economy to prosper. The extreme depth of this unique ecosystem has left it largely undisturbed, but new pressures to increase offshore drilling and bottom-dragging fishing methods now threaten this natural treasure. Because of its economic, scientific, and intrinsic value, we believe that the New England coral canyons and seamounts area deserves protection as a national marine sanctuary.

The coral colonies growing along these canyons and seamounts provide habitat for hundreds of marine species, including those that give New England seafood its reputation for quality and taste. While innumerable species call the threatened canyons and seamounts home, the potential for fishing in the area itself is minimal. Mining and drilling pose larger threats to this habitat, but as outlined in one of Oceana’s most recent reports (which you can read here) the potential for oil and gas extraction along the eastern coast has been largely exaggerated by the industry, and is a less practical option than other, more sustainable alternatives. Damaging New England’s thriving bird watching, whale watching, and fishing industries on behalf of a poorly thought-out energy plan does much more harm than good. Our ocean is vast and full of life. As we discover the areas that play vital roles in the marine ecosystem, we should protect them to ensure the abundance of these resources in the future.

The exploratory missions undertaken by NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer have revealed to the scientific community and the world a new frontier in America’s own backyard. School children and marine scientists alike express palpable excitement as technological advances make it possible for humans to explore previously uncharted depths. One scientist remarked on Okeanos’ livefeed, “This is incredible — it’s like visiting Bryce Canyon 6,000 feet underwater.”

While the geological features of this area are stunning, the age and scale of the coral colonies that live there (many of them several meters tall and thousands of years old) also hold much in common with an old growth forest. One similarity that supports this comparison is the potential that natural chemists see in the medicinal properties of new species growing in this region. The cure to some of humanity’s most terrible diseases might be awaiting discovery on the ocean floor.

Protection of this area can also help build resiliency against the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, which is occurring as more carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, making it more difficult for corals and other marine animals to generate skeletons and shells. Creating this national marine sanctuary will help to preserve genetic diversity, which will be vital for the ocean’s inhabitants to withstand more acidic and warmer conditions. Covering 71 percent of the earth’s surface, our oceans are by far the biggest carbon sink our planet has to offer. As the effects of global warming become more pronounced and harmful to life on earth, we should do whatever we can to ensure the continued ability of the ocean to absorb carbon emissions.

Now is the time to safeguard these deep-sea treasures and avoid irreversible damage to remarkable ecosystems. For these reasons, we support permanent protection of the New England coral canyons and seamounts area, and we support this nomination of a new national marine sanctuary.

Thank you for your work to recognize and protect America’s outstanding marine treasures.

[Signature]

[1] See also, the success of rebuilding fisheries via the protection of laws like the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Berkeley Law Student, Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Ecology Law Quarterly