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A Monumental Chance for Monumental Protection

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hosted a town hall meeting in Providence, Rhode Island to discuss the possible designation of the first Marine National Monument in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean with scientists, conservationists, fishermen, and the public.

A Marine National Monument is a type of Marine Protected Area that is designated through a Presidential Proclamation. Currently, there are four U.S. Marine National Monuments in the U.S. Pacific Ocean – Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll, and Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.  President George W. Bush established these monuments in 2006 and 2009. In 2014, President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to make it the largest Marine Protected Area in the world! Together the monuments cover over 700,000 square miles of water  and protect some of the U.S. Pacific’s most beautiful and biologically diverse habitats from commercial fishing, mining, and drilling.

Now, conservationists are pushing President Obama to create a Marine National Monument in the U.S. Atlantic and have been drumming up a large amount of support. They would like President Obama to designate a Marine Monument to collectively protect two of the U.S. Atlantic’s greatest marine treasures – the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area and the Gulf of Maine’s Cashes Ledge. Both places are incredibly unique and both contain a diversity of ocean life.

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area is made up of five undersea canyons, starting about 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, and four nearby seamounts. Scientists are just beginning to learn about these incredible deep-sea habitats. In 2013, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used a remotely operated vehicle to capture video of the ocean life found on these canyons and seamounts. They discovered that the canyons and seamounts contain numerous fragile cold-water coral communities. And they observed many new and rare deep-sea species. Scientists have also found that the canyons and seamounts attract a large amount of ocean wildlife, including tunas, sea turtles, sea birds, sperm whales, beaked whales and a variety of dolphin and porpoise species.

 

Corals observed at New England's Canyons and Seamounts during NOAA's deep-sea explorations. On the left are cup corals and bubblegum corals. On the right is a bamboo coral.NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition

Cup corals and bubblegum corals (left) and a bamboo coral (right) observed during NOAA’s deep-sea exploration of the New England’s Canyons and Seamounts.

 

The Gulf of Maine’s Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range that contains the deepest and largest cold water kelp forest along the Atlantic coast. Kelp are giant ocean plants that grow in dense groups, similar to a forest on land. Cashes Ledge serves as critical habitat for many coastal and offshore ocean species – including New England’s iconic Atlantic cod, rare species like the Atlantic wolffish, migrating schools of bluefin tuna, sea turtles, blue and basking sharks, and endangered North Atlantic right whales.

 

Kelp Forest on Cashes Ledge

Kelp forest on Cashes Ledge

 

In contrast to most other places in the U.S. Atlantic, the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area and Cashes Ledge have largely remained free from human disturbance. That is why they still have healthy and diverse habitats that are teeming with ocean life. But now the challenge is to keep it this way.

Many fear that the push to fish, mine, and drill in more and more places will soon put these fragile ocean places at risk. Just last year, the commercial fishing industry pushed to open part of Cashes Ledge to destructive bottom trawlers. (Thankfully federal fishery managers rejected this proposal and for now have kept the area off-limits). Rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification also threaten these places.

That is why many people came out to voice their support for the permanent protection of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area and Cashes Ledge at last week’s town hall meeting. Many, many others (including The Safina Center) submitted letters of support.

And it’s not just conservationists and scientists who are supporting the permanent protection of these remarkable ocean places – coastal business owners, recreational fishermen, and educators want to see these places protected too. Coastal business owners and recreational fishermen want them protected because they support many species that are critical to New England’s whale watching, recreational fishing, and seabird viewing industries. And they understand that in order to have a thriving ocean economy you need healthy, vibrant ocean ecosystems. Educators and scientists would like these areas preserved because they serve as living laboratories for those that want to learn about New England’s species and habitats.

 

Some of the marine life observed at New England's Canyons and Seamounts. A bobtail squid, a porcupine crab, and a bathysaurus fish which uses its lower jaw to scoop in the sand.NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition

Some of the deep-sea marine life observed on New England’s Canyons and Seamounts: a bobtail squid, a porcupine crab, and a bathysaurus fish which uses its lower jaw to scoop in the sand.

 

However, some commercial fishermen and republicans have voiced their opposition to the designation of a Marine National Monument in the U.S. Atlantic. And there is concern that President Obama may protect only some of New England’s Canyons and Seamounts, and not Cashes Ledge.

We need to keep the pressure on President Obama to do what is best for the U.S. Atlantic Ocean and the New England region. Protecting the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area and Cashes Ledge will help ensure we have a healthy ocean and a thriving ocean economy for generations to come. We must seize this monumental chance for monumental protection!

You can help by writing to President Obama. Ask him to designate a Marine National Monument today to protect both the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area and Cashes Ledge. And be sure to tell President Obama why protecting the ocean is important to you. You can send your letter to atlanticconservation@noaa.gov or through this petition.

 

Cod swim through kelp at Cashes Ledge

Cod swim through kelp at Cashes Ledge

 

To learn more about the importance of protecting the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area and Cashes Ledge, check out these short videos created by some of our conservation partners and New England locals:

–  Protecting Deep-Sea Corals https://vimeo.com/138885234

–  Protecting Whales https://vimeo.com/138885235

–  Helping Fish and Fishermen https://vimeo.com/13888523

– Helping Coastal Businesses https://vimeo.com/138885233

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