Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Fishing Groups Exaggerate Economic Impacts of a New England Marine National Monument

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument protects thriving deep-sea coral communities. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area holds remarkable ecologic value—ancient deep sea coral gardens, abundant and diverse marine mammal populations, as well as sea turtles and sea birds, and an array of rare and unusual marine species. The area is also distinguished by how little fishing actually occurs there. It is truly one of the least fished areas on the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard.

That’s why I have to call out erroneous claims that creating a marine national monument in New England’s Coral Canyons and Seamounts would have “devastating economic impacts” on any fishery or port in New England, much less “cost $500 million and ‘countless jobs,’” as claimed by a member of the Rhode Island fishing industry. The facts simply contradict those claims.

Very little fishing activity occurs in proposed areas

Overall, very little commercial fishing activity is currently associated with the proposed monument area, and the designation of a marine national monument would be anything but “severe” for fishing groups.

Bottom trawling is the dominant fishing gear used in the region, but it is already prohibited in two of the canyons. And most of the canyons are too deep and too rugged for bottom trawling to be effective. Minimal bottom trawling (very likely less than 1 percent of total catch) for Loligo squid and butterfish occurs around the heads of the five canyons proposed for inclusion in the monument, according to 2011-2013 catch reports and other government data. And currently, there is no bottom trawling at all on the seamounts.

Bottom pot fisheries do exist for lobsters and red crab all along the edge of the continental shelf, including in the canyons. But with respect to lobster, the entire management area containing the proposed New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts only accounts for 3 percent of the federal permits and 8 percent of the total lobster catch. And the canyons and seamounts are only a very small fraction of that larger management unit. Furthermore, only a handful of vessels fish for lobster in the proposed monument area, and most of them can and likely do fish in other areas.

The red crab fishery in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions is a very small, limited-access fishery. While it is impossible to calculate the exact economic losses resulting from a monument designation (the industry does not make the necessary data publicly available), the five canyons in the proposed monument area are located in the red crab fishery’s least productive area. Additionally, the red crab fishery utilizes the canyons and continental shelf all the way from North Carolina to the U.S.-Canada border, and the vast majority of red crab landings are from outside the proposed monument area.

All in all, the economic impacts on the multi-million dollar red crab fishery would likely not be significant. The impacts of the large crab pots on the corals, however, can be severe and last thousands of years, as this photo makes clear.

A red crab pot on a coral covered ledge. Crabbers would never know if they are setting traps on coral habitat or not. Image via Peter Auster.

A red crab pot on a coral covered ledge. Crabbers would never know if they are setting traps on coral habitat or not. Image via Peter Auster/NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

Finally, the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area covers only about 0.3 percent of the total area actively used for the pelagic longlining (tuna and swordfish) fishery and provided only around 1 percent of 2006-2012 average annual revenues for the U.S. Atlantic pelagic longline fishery.

New Bedford’s lucrative scallop industry not impacted

New Bedford is repeatedly the most valuable commercial fishing port in the United States largely due to one species – Atlantic sea scallops. In 2014, sea scallop landings accounted for nearly 25 percent of the total fishing revenue across New England – a full quarter of the revenue – despite accounting for just 4 percent of the landings.

Neither these valuable sea scallops, nor the grounds that scallopers would like to access in the future, are anywhere near the areas under consideration for a potential marine national monument designation. Additionally, the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area is too deep and rugged for scalloping to even occur.

To put it simply, the proposed marine national monument would not affect the scallop industry. That is why the claim that the port of New Bedford would suffer drastic economic impacts from a marine national monument designation is wholly false.

The full water column – from the surface to the ocean floor – needs protection

Yes, a small amount of commercial fishing currently does occur within the proposed monument area, and like any new management measure, there will be associated impacts – but a monument designation would also yield great benefits down the road. We should not allow false, exaggerated claims from fishermen – who would remain able to use approximately 99 percent of the ocean and would not likely experience significant long term impacts – to drown out the Nation’s interest in a healthy ocean.

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are full of life from the seabirds on the surface to the deep-sea corals on the seafloor. A monument designation that permits fishing in the water column would threaten the marine mammals, sea turtles, birds, sharks, bluefin tuna, and myriad other marine species that inhabit and move through the area as they are at risk of being entangled in fishing gear or caught as bycatch.

The economic impacts on fisheries in Cashes Ledge Closed Area are likely to be even lower, which is why thousands of supporters of permanent protection continue to urge politicians and President Obama to move forward with designating that area as a monument as well.

Fishermen are often accused of being quick to make things up, i.e., the legendary “one that got away.” Certainly, there will be some impacts from a marine national monument designation, but if the President does the right thing, we can protect the last few places scientists tell us still matter.


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