President Donald Trump said he would allow commercial fishing in protected waters off New England, doing away with Obama-era safeguards meant to conserve deep-sea corals and endangered whales.
The action comes after years of lobbying and legal challenges by commercial fishermen eager to plumb the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument established by former President Barack Obama in September 2016.
Trump announced the news at a meeting Friday in Bangor, Maine, with some of those same fishing industry leaders, former Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Trump said Obama did “a tremendous disservice” to Maine by making the monument off-limits to commercial fishing.
“They’ve regulated you out of business,” Trump told fishermen at the event.
Bernhardt said the boundaries of the monument won’t change under the proclamation, which Trump signed Friday.
New Life Discoveries
The nearly 5,000-square-mile monument—which contains sub-sea caverns as big as the Grand Canyon—is located about 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., on the edge of Georges Bank. It teems with ocean life, and every time scientists explore it, “they find something new,” said Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with the conservation group Oceana.
“There’s amazing stuff that’s going on in there biologically, from the surface where there are whales and dolphins and sea birds, all the way down to the sea floor where there are deep-sea coral and sponge that are hundreds if not thousands of years old,” Brogan said by phone. “It’s a real concern that this special place we’re only beginning to learn about is going to be subject to more fishing.”
Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, called the move “part of the Trump administration’s continued assault on environmental protections.”
Fishing Industry Asked for Access
Fishing industry leaders have lobbied the Trump administration to lift prohibitions inside other marine monuments, arguing in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last week that they force America fishermen to spend more money, and take on more risks, hunting outside U.S. waters.
Trump’s move marks a shift for the administration, which has twice gone to court to defend the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Justice Department lawyers, joined by environmental groups, previously fended off challenges from New England lobstermen and fishermen who said the protections exceeded the federal government’s authority under the Antiquities Act.
Environmentalists argue the shift will harm a unique marine habitat while doing little to help lobster fishermen, whose industry—and catch—is threatened by climate change. The Gulf of Maine has been found to be warming 99% faster than the rest of the ocean.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said Trump’s decision “won’t improve the prospects for our fishermen a fraction as much as reconsidering the tariffs that have wiped out years of time, toil, and energy invested by our seafood industry in developing new markets around the globe.”
King, who caucuses with Senate Democrats, said in a statement that Maine’s seafood industry “has largely been left to weather this storm alone.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), echoed King’s comments, saying Trump failed to help Maine fishermen suffering because of his administration’s trade policies.
“The congressional delegation wrote to him last June to help our fishermen and he did nothing,” she said.
Pingree, who sits on the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee added: “Forget the fact that the President doesn’t have explicit legal authority to unilaterally open up a national monument for commercial fishing, this will be tied up in the courts for years.”
House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) blasted Trump’s move. Grijalva has demanded more information on Interior’s 2017 national monument review, which resulted in the administration reducing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.
“With more than 100,000 Americans dead from coronavirus, more than 40 million out of work and our country facing its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Trump made the time to weaken our marine habitat protection standards, which says everything that needs to be said,” Grijalva said in a statement.
But Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, praised Trump’s decision to shift administrative policy “to support America’s seafood industry and local economies.”
As panel chairman back in 2016, Bishop met with industry representatives in Massachusetts to talk about the potential economic impact of the impending marine monument designation.
“Our conversation with industry led to a compromise proposal that would both protect the environment and American jobs. Unfortunately, this compromise fell on deaf ears,” Bishop said, referring to the Obama administration.
Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who is facing a tough reelection battle, chose not to join Trump at his Maine appearance.
In a statement, Collins said she has worked with Maine fishermen, lobstermen, and other industries on issues including trade barriers with China and the European Union, regulations on right whales, and financial relief from coronavirus-related economic disruptions.
“The federal government should direct its focus to resolving these challenges rather than reopening the debate over this national marine monument,” she said.
—With assistance from Ellen M. Gilmer.
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