MAR 30, 2017 8:06 AM PDT

Saving New England's Corals

The North Atlantic may not be a place that you think of as having a vast biodiverse coral reef ecosystem. But in fact the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, are cold-water coral communities that provide food, spawning habitat, and shelter for many fish and invertebrate species. Furthermore, the reefs are known to provide habitat for the oldest known marine organism, the deep-water black coral, which has been dated to more than 4,000 years old. Seamounts, equally important in their ecological role, are undersea mountains which emit chemicals that provide crucial nutrients for marine life.   

The white tentacled sea anemone shown here would take more than 200 years to bounce back from disturbance like bottom trawling. Photo: Jon Witman, Earthjustice

Former President Obama created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in September using the Antiquities Act in order to protect this unique marinescape. Covering 4,913 square miles, equivalent to the size of Connecticut and 1.5% of U.S. federal waters on the East Coast, it is the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the designation was controversial with commercial fishing groups because it restricts access to fishing areas. Consequently, on March 7, five commercial fishing organizations challenged the the monument;s validity. The lawsuit aims to re-open the area to extractive activities, such as exploration for drilling sites and bottom-scouring fishing (trawling).

In response Earthjustice has filed a motion to defend the monument, representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Naturalist Zack Klyver. Earthjustice attorney Roger Fleming stated, “There is no question that President Obama met all legal requirements in carefully designing this monument to protect its rare deep sea canyons and seamounts, and that he appropriately exercised the authority provided to him by Congress to protect and preserve this national treasure for generations to come.”

Earthjustice is not alone in its desire to protect the region: more than 300,000 people from across the country have sent messages to the President in support of a proclamation to designate these areas as a National Monument.

The NRCD stated,“This ocean park spans almost 5,000 miles and safeguards ancient coral gardens, endangered sperm whales, Atlantic puffins, and literally thousands of other animal species for the benefit of all Americans. Our goal is to prevent it from being handed back to private industries for commercial exploitation, including commercial fishing, seismic surveying, oil and gas drilling, and mining. We also want to protect the President’s authority to designate future marine monuments and demonstrate that the other four marine monuments–designated by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush—were legally created.”

The protection of the area is critical for not only the biological health of the ecosystem, but also the region’s role as a carbon sink, keeping carbon dioxide in the ocean seabed instead of in our warming atmosphere. Commercial exploitation like that that the NRDC speaks of would threaten the region’s ability to act in that role.

Sources: Earthjustice, NRDC

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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