Obama's Marine Monument Could Spell Disaster for New England Fishermen

Although conservationists are hailing the president’s move as “phenomenally exciting,” fishermen in the area are not so psyched.

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Sep 19 2016, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user masstravel

America is well-known for its glorious and plentiful national parks, and at a conference taking place in Washington, DC this week, President Obama made the dramatic declaration that he was signing an executive order to create the very first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean. The almost-5,000-square-mile area—called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument—lies off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts and has been dubbed an "underwater Yellowstone."

But although conservationists are hailing the president's move as "phenomenally exciting," fishermen in the area are not so psyched. To say the least. They're accusing Obama of legislating from the White House—a power, the lobstermen and crab fishers of Massachusetts say, he simply doesn't have. There's also the very real concern among the community that the administration is selling out hundreds and hundreds of sustainable fishermen in favor of environmental grandstanding that ignores the real culprits.

The area in question is a phenomenal expanse of extinct volcanoes, underwater forests, canyons, and reefs filled with endangered and exotic species. But it is also a place that has provided a livelihood for generation after generation of fishermen, especially those focused on red crab and lobster. If all goes according to plan, the area will be off limits to them in seven years and the good times will be over.

READ MORE: We Are About to Hit the Point of No Return for Sustainable Fishing

MUNCHIES spoke with Bob Vanasse of the National Coalition for Fishing Communities, who said about the designation, "I don't know anybody in the fishing community who is in favor of it." Vanasse said that the local fishermen believe their point of view was wholly ignored before the order was enacted. He believes that by creating the monument in an executive order, President Obama sidestepped the process of running the idea through Congress, which would have entailed a "consultative process where environmentalists, the industry, and regulators are involved and what comes out is reviewed by an agency for a year or more before it gets published in the Federal Register. This executive order is a short circuit around all of that—and that's the reason it's frustrating."

The Obama administration has claimed authority to protect the area under the Antiquities Act—a 1906 law that gives the president the authority to create public monuments on public lands. The fishing industry, though, may challenge the legality of the order in court. Vanesse said they could argue that the Antiquities Act doesn't apply to waters off the coast in what is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. "This isn't a complete slam on President Obama. This all began with President Bush in 2006 when the Antiquities Act was used in this way—at sea," Vanasse said, referring to the creation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean. As a first step, several Northeast fishing groups have joined together, signing a letter to the President that questions the legality of the executive order.

"I don't think there's any question that this in an abuse of the Antiquities Act," Jon Williams of the Atlantic Red Crab Company told MUNCHIES today, from a boat out in the Atlantic. His company is known for its tireless sustainable practices, and has been recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch and the New England Aquarium. He and others believe that if Congress had considered the matter under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and held hearings, they would have had to weigh the economic impact of the designation on fishing in the area. "It's a bald-faced lie that fisherman don't heavily rely on this area to survive. Hundreds of fishermen are going to be affected by this. There's definitely going to be fisheries that close down," Williams told us via phone.

READ MORE: Why You Don't Realize That You're Probably Eating Endangered Fish

Both Vanasse and Williams said that reporters were given preferential treatment over the area's fishermen and "know more about this than the industry does." They both allege that the fishing community had not been allowed to look at a map detailing the affected areas until 72 hours prior to the President's speech. "The industry hasn't been given a plan. The first time the industry saw anything resembling a plan was on Friday in New Bedford at the whaling museum, when a map was presented with boxes on it—not even something to scale that could be used to do calculations."

"Most affected will be fishing of red crab, lobster, and then squid, whiting and the highly migratory pelagics that swim through there," Vanasse told us. The impact could be as large as $10 million a year on local fishing.

Grant Moore of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen's Association agrees with Vanasse. "They refer to them as coral canyons, but these are named canyons that have been historically fished by generation upon generation of New England fisherman in this area," he said. His frustration was audible when he said by phone, "No question that it's going to adversely affect the fishing community. There are any number of ways to better protect the marine habitat."

Not surprisingly, Greenpeace's Senior Oceans Campaigner, Phil Kline, wrote in an emailed statement that his organization applauds President Obama's designation, which "will protect critical deep sea habitat off the coast of Cape Cod." He believes "President Obama's action today continues to add to his already impressive ocean conservation achievements and leadership."

Obama's executive order may indeed help to solidify his legacy as an environmentalist president, something he seems intent on doing of late—and one day, the world may be a better place for it. It seems, though, that the fishermen of Cape Cod will be paying a significant price.