President Barack Obama is expected to add to his conservation legacy Thursday by announcing the first national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, an area off the northeast coast of the US with rifts as deep as the Grand Canyon and underwater mountains more than 7,000 feet high.
The new monument, called The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, will be the first Atlantic Marine National Monument, covering a 4913 square mile area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. This designation comes just weeks after the world's largest marine protected area was created outside Hawaii — also by presidential decree through the Antiquities Act.
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is an unusually biodiverse area. Until recently very little was known about it, but the 2013 NOAA Okeanos Explorer expedition found a range of rare and endangered species thriving there that includes 73 corals, some of them over a thousand years old, as well as turtles, whales, dolphins, birds and deep sea fish.
In total, the expedition found over 320 species in the canyons and 630 on the seamounts, though it is unlikely that scientists have mapped the full extent of these ecosystems.
"We get the biggest conservation bang for the buck, so to speak, by focusing on so many species packed into a relatively small area," said Peter Auster, professor of marine science at the University of Connecticut and senior research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium, and a longstanding advocate for the Atlantic Marine Monument, in an interview with VICE News.
"The coral canyons and seamounts area is occupied by a diversity of extremely fragile species, like deep sea corals," he said. "These species have low reproduction rates, and very low ecological resilience. For corals, once destroyed, it is unclear if they will ever recover."
President Obama planned to make the announcement at the Our Ocean Conference in Washington DC, where more than twenty countries are expected to declare protection measures for 460,000 square miles of ocean.
Marine National Monument status grants a particularly strong form of protection that will stop all commercial fishing within the monument's boundaries. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) led an effort urging the President to take action on the issue, and pointed out that fishing is not the only concern in fragile ecosystems such as these.
"What's threatening any part of the ocean where there may be natural resources are oil and mineral exploration, man's inevitable effort to develop and exploit resources under the sea", he told Vice News in an interview, suggesting that rapidly developing deep sea mining technology might one day pose a threat to U.S. coastal waters.
On the other hand, the fishing industry has been vocal in its opposition to the proposal. In a statement earlier this week it warned that the Monument designation will end four decades of collaborative fisheries management through the 1976 Magnuson Stevens Act, replacing it with one-sided interventions that will have damaging consequences across the industry.
Two of the most economically important fisheries off the New England coast, red crab and lobster, are expected to be particularly impacted by the new conservation regulations and are therefore being offered a seven-year period to transition before the fishing ban enters into force.
This measure is unlikely to satisfy fishing communities who feel that expanded marine conservation is an attack on a way of life that is already in decline and on fishing practices that have successfully protected the area so far.
Captain John Brewer, a fisherman who lands red crab at the port of New Bedford, Conn, said there is ample evidence that the industry already contributes to sustainable long-term management.
"I don't believe we are harming [the corals]," he said. "They have been there for a thousand years and we have been fishing there for hundreds of years and you know, they're still there."