The United States Law Week

INSIGHT: Opening Marine National Monument to Fishing Is Like Treating Covid-19 With Eyedrops

July 30, 2020, 8:01 AM

On June 5, in the midst of social unrest across the nation and a global pandemic, President Trump issued a presidential proclamation using the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to open the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument—the first-ever marine monument on the U.S. East coast—to commercial fishing.

At a roundtable discussion with fishermen and local politicians, Trump tried to signal widespread approval of the measure by signing the proclamation surrounded by a small cadre of enthusiastic supporters. However, actions that undermine the health of our ocean, are far from popular.

Popular opinion aside, there are significant questions about whether the action was even legal. A 2017 letter to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from 121 legal scholars explains that the president lacks the authority to abolish or diminish national monuments. These powers are reserved for Congress.

Alternatively, legal challenges claiming the monument was created illegally by President Barack Obama have not stood up to scrutiny either. On Dec. 27, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed a case brought by industry groups that challenged the existence of the monument.

Science Proves Trump’s Premise is Illogical, Economically Irrational

But the evidence against this action is not just the purview of lawyers. An overwhelming majority of scientific research not only backs up the legal argument against the Trump administration’s action, but it also shows that the premise of the measure is both illogical and economically irrational.

The proclamation states that beyond lifting the ban on commercial fishing, it “does not modify the monument in any other respect.” Having spent my career exploring some of the most beautiful and biodiverse places in the ocean, I can say with certainty that allowing commercial fishing in a monument is nothing short of desecrating it. A monument without proper protections is a monument only in name.

This marine region was protected under the Antiquities Act, which aims to safeguard “objects of historic or scientific interest.” Commercial fishing is an extractive activity that can have wide-ranging and catastrophic impacts on these historically and scientifically significant objects.

Wild places like those protected by this marine monument preserve fragile and vitally important species when no extractive activities are allowed. The deep-sea corals in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument can live for thousands of years and create deep communities similar to the redwood forests of the land. A single pass of a trawl, or entanglement with a fishing trap, can sever centuries of growth within minutes.

Local Fishing Industry Would Benefit

The science further undermines the economic logic of the administration’s action. In signing this proclamation, Trump argued that the creation of the monument in 2016 harmed the local fishing industry, and that reopening the region to fishing would be the local industry’s salvation. But allowing commercial fishing in the monument is like using eye drops to treat the coronavirus.

Opponents of this marine monument would have you believe it is solely responsible for the sinking performance of the local fishing industry. In reality, the worst enemy of the industry is overfishing and harmful trade and climate policies, not national monuments.

Ocean warming is pushing lobsters northwards, into the colder waters of Canada. What helped bring lobsters to Maine is now driving them away. China slapped tariffs on U.S. lobsters as retaliation for the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese products. The coronavirus pandemic—and the lack of demand it caused during lockdown—has further magnified the unsustainable future of the industry.

In reality, there is ample evidence across the ocean that fully protected areas actually benefit fishing around them. A recent study showed that tuna catch (and catch-per-unit-effort) has increased after the creation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. The biomass of fish is, on average, 600% larger within the boundaries of marine monuments and other fully protected areas, and fish size is a third larger. That means the fish produce many more eggs, which help replenish unprotected areas nearby.

The administration’s myopic focus on perceived impacts of the Northeast Canyons Marine Monument on the fishing industry ignores other positive impacts of this protected area.

In using the Magnuson-Stevens Act to justify its move to re-introduce commercial fishing to the region, the administration assumes only one use for U.S. marine waters: a source of wildlife for people to eat. But there are many other uses of the ocean, which benefit all Americans, including those who don’t like to eat fish or lobsters. These other uses include conservation, recreation, and scientific research.

The evidence is crying loudly that coastal communities in New England are harmed by everything but the Monument.

If we are to avoid ecological extinctions and the collapse of more fisheries, and help the ocean store more of our carbon pollution, we need to highly protect at least 30% of our ocean by 2030. We need to create more monuments, not violate the few we have.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Dr. Enric Sala is a former university professor who saw himself writing the obituary of ocean life, and quit academia to become a full-time conservationist as National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. He founded and leads Pristine Seas, a project that combines exploration, research, and media to help protect the last wild places in the ocean. To date, Pristine Seas has helped to create 22 of the largest marine reserves on the planet, covering an area of 5.8 million square km. Sala is the author of the upcoming book The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild.

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