During a visit to rural Maine on Friday, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation to open a vast protected site off the East Coast to commercial fishing ― a move that goes against the very purpose of designating a marine monument.
Established by the Obama administration in 2016, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument encompasses more than 4,900 square miles off the East Coast and is home to ancient seafloor canyons and seamounts, endangered whales, deep ocean corals and numerous migratory fish species. Rolling back the restrictions on that area, the liberal Center for American Progress estimated, would eliminate nearly 85% of ocean protections along the United States outside the remote western Pacific.
Trump signed the proclamation during a roundtable with representatives of the commercial fishing industry.
“We’re opening it today,” Trump said of the monument. “We’re undoing [President Barack Obama’s] executive order. It’s ridiculous. What reason did he have for closing 5,000 square miles?”
“He didn’t have a reason, in my opinion,” Trump added. “So we’re opening it up.”
The action comes amid a rapidly worsening global extinction crisis, a deadly COVID-19 pandemic, widespread protests over racial injustice and one week after Trump proclaimed June as National Oceans Month. At the time, he called on Americans to “reflect on the value and importance of oceans not only to our security, environment, and economy but also as a source of recreation and enjoyment.”
At Friday’s roundtable, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt accused the Obama administration of slapping a “no fishing” sign on a large swath of federal waters and said Americans should not have to “fight” their own government.
“You’re opening up 5,000 square miles with the stroke of a pen,” Bernhardt told Trump of his proclamation. It was clear that Trump had little if any understanding of what his own proclamation actually does. Bernhardt had to explain the details to the president several times.
“You’re taking down a ‘no fishing’ sign,” Bernhardt said.
“I love that,” Trump replied.
“That’s a big thing,” Trump later added. “You’re so lucky I’m president.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has engaged in a frenzy of environmental rollbacks that it says are meant to jumpstart the struggling U.S. economy. But the administration has had its eyes on Northeast Canyons and Seamounts and other marine protected sites since Trump took office, part of its broader review of more than two dozen national monument designations and expansions made under the Antiquities Act of 1906. That review ultimately led Trump to carve more than 2 million acres from a pair of protected land monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante ― the largest rollback of national monuments in U.S. history.
In a draft report to the White House in August 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that Trump greenlight commercial fishing in three marine monuments: Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. But his final report, submitted later that year, made no mention of opening up commercial fishing. The plan resurfaced last summer in an internal document outlining the Commerce Department’s “Strategic Priorities for 2018,” which included advancing maritime commerce and reducing America’s seafood trade deficit. One of the ways the agency intended to boost seafood production, the document noted, is by approving “permit fishing in marine monuments” within 90 days.
Last month, Trump directed the Commerce Department to start drafting new rules to open federal waters to industrial fish-farming operations. The executive order infuriated commercial fishers and environmentalists, who warned that finfish aquaculture could increase pollution at a moment when oceans are already under extreme stress and flood the market with farmed fish, making it impossible for boat captains to eke out a living.
Experts say opening the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument to fishing will do little to improve the lot of fishermen, whose industry has contracted over the past few decades as the Gulf of Maine ― which stretches 36,000 square miles from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia, Canada ― is warming faster than almost any other body of water on Earth. At an average increase of 0.11 degrees Fahrenheit per year over the past three decades, Gulf of Maine temperatures are surging more rapidly than those in 99% of global oceans.
So-called climate shocks ― significant deviations from average temperatures ― sent fishing jobs in New England’s coastal counties plummeting 16% from 1996 to 2017, according to a peer-reviewed University of Delaware study published in December. Meanwhile, the New England fishery for Northern shrimp has remained closed for seven consecutive years and record lobster hauls over the past decade in Maine now look set to decline, according to two studies published last year.
“What rolling back the monument does is it puts a really vulnerable and ancient ocean ecosystem at risk for minimum economic benefit, at the cost of distracting from the real problem facing Maine’s fisheries and U.S. fisheries as a whole, which is climate change,” said Miriam Goldstein, the director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress.
Scientists warn that the simultaneous climate and biodiversity crises pose an existential threat to support systems upon which humans rely, and there are growing calls for world governments to better safeguard intact ecosystems. A United Nations draft biodiversity plan released earlier this year calls for protecting 30% of all lands and oceans by 2030, with at least 10% put under “strict protection.”
Policy ideas to implement those goals are being developed. Last year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) vowed to implement a “Blue New Deal” as part of her presidential campaign. The plan, now championed by groups drafting climate policies for the Democratic Party, includes proposals to conserve more open ocean and ramp up prosecutions of polluters, particularly agribusiness giants whose waste runoff is a major source of toxic algae-fueling nitrogen.
Trump’s proclamation does not shrink the boundary of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument, although critics argue that opening the site to commercial fishing undermines the very intent of the designation. The site and other U.S. marine monuments were established to protect resources and restore the health of the ocean, including fish stocks.
Ahead of Trump’s trip, Saving Seafood, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, issued a press release about a letter that the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils sent late last month calling for the Department of Commerce to lift fishing restrictions in all U.S. marine monuments.
“The ban on commercial fishing within Marine National Monument waters is a regulatory burden on domestic fisheries, requiring many of the affected American fishermen to travel outside U.S. waters with increased operational expenses and higher safety-at-sea risks,” the councils wrote.
The president’s action on Friday is certain to face legal challenges.
“This unlawful order to remove critical protections for the only marine national monument in the Atlantic will push numerous endangered species closer to the brink,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement. “Just as we are committed to reversing the illegal assaults on western national monuments, so too will we work with our partners to reverse this dreadful decision.”
CORRECTION: The article misattributed authorship of the letter sent to the Commerce Department to Saving Seafood. The letter was co-signed by all eight of the nation’s regional fishery management councils.