Obama designates first-ever Atlantic Ocean marine monument

An Atlantic puffin flies back to its burrow after catching a beak full of small fish to feed its chicks CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROBERY F. BUKATY
An Atlantic puffin flies back to its burrow after catching a beak full of small fish to feed its chicks CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROBERY F. BUKATY

Last week, after making the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument the biggest fully protected ocean park anywhere on the planet, President Barack Obama said his action “allows us to save and study [this] fragile ecosystem threatened by climate change.”

He was speaking from a beach on Midway Atoll, one of the most remote corners of the United States, but on Thursday, he brought the same message much closer to home.

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At the State Department’s Our Ocean conference, Obama again took out his monument designation pen, and, using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, announced the establishment of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

“The investment all of us together made here today is vital for our economy… it is also vital to our spirit, it is vital to who we are,” Obama said. Referencing concerns the ocean’s health, he said acting was important for the next generation. “If we’re going to leave our children with oceans like the ones that were left to us, we’re going to have to act and we’re going to have to act boldly.”

Scientists, faith leaders, recreational business people, conservationists, and even some fishermen, have long sought such a designation for the spectacular series of underwater canyons, which plunge deeper than the Grand Canyon. Located at the edge of Georges Bank about 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, the canyons include four extinct underwater volcanoes, the only ones of their kind in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean. Their new monument status means that all commercial activity will eventually be prohibited within the monument boundaries.

The area is home to high concentrations of marine mammals and seabirds at the surface, including iconic species like threatened sperm whales and endangered Atlantic puffins, as well as deep sea corals, some of which have been documented to be over a thousand years old. Dr. Peter Auster, a scientist at the Mystic Aquarium who has studied the region for decades, has described his trips into the underwater wonderland as being “like a stroll through Dr. Seuss’ garden.”

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Earlier this year, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote a letter to Obama on behalf of the entire Connecticut congressional delegation asking him to permanently protect a wide swath of the outer continental shelf covering roughly 2,100 square nautical miles.

The final area was reduced by roughly 15 percent, primarily to mitigate the effect of the designation on commercial fishing activity in the area. Lobstermen and red crab fishermen were also granted a seven-year exemption from this prohibition in order to adapt their operations.

As the world’s oceans feel increasing pressure from human activity — including fishing, but also the effects of climate change and acidification — protected areas like those Obama established in waters off Hawaii and New England in recent weeks are critical to safeguarding marine ecosystems for future generations.

In the early 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to protect massive swaths of the American West — places we now know as The Grand Canyon and Yosemite. His actions were controversial and angered the few companies and industries that exploited those majestic places, but Roosevelt knew his decisions would leave a lasting legacy.

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President Obama is now establishing his own lasting legacy on conservation, truly claiming the mantle of America’s greatest ocean president.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at American Progress.