Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Op-ed: Monument tradeoffs are necessary – Preserving the ecosystem and biodiversity is crucial

A close-up of a crinoid illustrates the pinnules on the long arms used to filter food from the water. Image courtesy Northeast Canyons 2013 Science Team/NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

The following post is an opinion piece originally published in Commonwealth Magazine. The authors are Rip Cunningham and John McMurray. Rip Cunningham is a recreational fisherman, a former chair of the New England Fishery Management Council and a member of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee. John McMurray is a charter captain and a former member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

Can anyone really say why there is such an outcry about the establishment of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument? It is doubtful that a majority of those speaking out against it could accurately locate the area on a chart. Let’s face it: there are a lot of politics involved in what should be a purely scientific decision. With Secretary of the Interior  Ryan Zinke’s decision to leave the door open to making changes to the monument, it’s clear that the science – and therefore, America’s best interests –  may not be his priority.

When discussions took place leading up to the Obama Administration’s designation of the first marine monument in federal waters along the Atlantic coast, we supported the idea. In fact, one of us spoke at a meeting held by the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on the designation of this area and supported the inclusion of the Cashes Ledge area as well, which was ultimately not included. The overriding concern then, and now, is the long-term health and sustainability of our oceans and hopefully the rebuilding of the Gulf of Maine cod population and other stressed wildlife populations. Philosophically, we have not been supporters of marine protected areas for the sake of marine protected areas. However, we do think they can be useful tools for protecting important and fragile habitat.

Having spent many years involved in fisheries management – including nine years on the New England Fishery Management Council and nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council – there are colleagues who ask, “Isn’t this the jurisdiction of the regional fishery management councils?” Well, yes and no. The councils primarily manage commercially valuable finfish and shellfish. Only tangentially do they get involved with marine habitat. But the biggest issue is the fact that the council’s decisions are relatively easy to change or eliminate. Marine monument designation has a much higher level of permanence. Certainly, when we look at some of the long-term issues facing the fishing industry in the Northeast, habitat protection with some durability is necessary.

Importantly, within the monument, recreational fishing, whale watch trips, seabird viewing expeditions, and other activities are allowed to operate. These activities are important for us economically and allow us to appreciate the value of the monument. The restrictions are on commercial extraction – including commercial fishing – because of the much greater impact these activities have on the fragile and vulnerable resources within the area.

Yes, we understand that this could impact some commercial fishermen. Over the years, we have seen many poor fisheries management decisions made on the basis that they would not negatively impact users. It is doubtful that any valuable marine habitat could be protected without causing some displacement. That said, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is located in an area with very minimal commercial fishing – and contingencies have been made for those in the offshore lobster and red crab fisheries.

Impacting a few commercial fishermen is not ideal. Unfortunately, there is very little that is perfect in ocean resource management. Tradeoffs always have to be made. What would truly be unfortunate is allowing a vibrant ecosystem and the biodiversity it supports to be destroyed. Then everyone loses.

There is no doubt in our minds that the only acceptable decision for President Trump to make would be to keep the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine Monument as it is. That makes the most sense for the future health of our oceans.

Read the op-ed on Commonwealth Magazine’s website here.


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