Mid-Atlantic Eyed for Marine Reserve, Monument

Published March 29, 2016

With less than one year left in office, President Barack Obama is moving forward with plans to restrict fishing in two areas off the Atlantic Coast.

In February, the Mid-Atlantic Marine Fishery Council voted to name an off-shore area stretching from North Carolina to New York State the Frank J. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area.

Spanning 35,000 square miles, approximately the size of South Carolina, the area contains some 15 undersea canyons. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to approve the name and the designation of the area as a marine reserve.

Once the reserve is officially established, bottom trawling within its boundaries will be banned as part of an effort to protect slow-growing, deep-water corals, which provide homes for numerous species.

Lautenberg, a long-time Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey who died in 2013, was a staunch advocate of limiting commercial fishing, inserting a provision in the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Marine Fishery and Conservation Management Act (1976) encouraging fishery councils to ban or restrict fishing in areas where there is deep-sea coral. 

National Marine Monument Being Pushed

North of the Lautenberg reserve, another sizeable area of the Atlantic—one that’s rich in fishing grounds and undersea geological formations—may also soon receive federal protection.

Led by Earthjustice, the Conservation Law Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Geographic Society, and the Pew Charitable Trust, a group of influential environmentalists is urging the Obama administration to use the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate a 6,000-square-mile area in the Gulf of Maine and off the coast of Massachusetts as a national monument. There are currently four marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, but there are none in the Atlantic Ocean.

National monument designations come with severe restrictions regarding the types of activities people can undertake within national monument borders. For over four centuries, the area targeted by environmental activists for monument designation, which the groups are referring to as the Atlantic Marine Monument, has been one of the richest fishing grounds in North America. It contains a number of nutrient-rich underwater mountain chains, including Cashes Ledge, which fishermen are particularly concerned about being denied access to.

Robert Vanasse, executive director of the fishing advocacy group Saving Seafood, told the Associated Press the monument proposal ignores protections already in place in Cashes Ledge, including prohibitions against dredging and bottom trawling.

“The final year of the Obama administration will be characterized by land grabs and sea grabs, restricting the American people’s access to their nation’s abundant resources,” said Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. 

‘Excluding Commercial Fishing’

The region’s fishermen fear a monument designation will harm their ability to earn a living, a fear shared by Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R).

“These National Marine Monuments serve only one purpose—excluding commercial fishing activity from certain segments of the ocean,” LePage wrote in a letter to Obama in August 2015.

Critics complain national monuments are often declared despite objections from people living nearby, who often earn a living from the areas.

“There shouldn’t be a couple of people sitting around a table in the West Wing deciding this kind of thing,” Vanasse told the Associated Press.

Creating of Property Rights in Fisheries

“These designations are less about the environment and more about politics and resource control,” said Brian Seasholes, director of the Endangered Species Project at the Reason Foundation. “If the Obama administration truly cared about the effects of fishing on the environment, then it would pursue the creation of property rights in fisheries, which have proven to be successful in a number of countries, including Iceland and New Zealand.

“Property rights in fisheries encourage conservation and cut down on waste and inefficiency,” said Seasholes. “It is high time for the United States to move to a proven, environmentally sustainable method of managing its fisheries.”

“Cordoning off the ocean and creating maritime reserves to save fisheries ignores and perpetuates the underlying flaws associated with public ownership that have proved so unsuccessful,” Seasholes said. 

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.