Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against New England’s Marine National Monument

An octopus in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. Photo: NOAA.

“In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that ‘there can be nothing in the world more beautiful’ than the natural wonders of the United States, and ‘our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever.’…Roosevelt was talking, of course, about those legendary sites that most Americans know: Yosemite Valley, the Canyon of Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.

But he might have been talking about a less well-known — and only more recently appreciated — natural wonder: the Canyons and Seamounts of the Northwestern Atlantic Ocean.”

Those are the opening sentences of the court opinion from U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg who, last week, dismissed the fishing industry’s lawsuit against the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The decision is a clear victory for the ocean and New England’s marine monument.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts – the only permanently protected area in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean – is located just 130 miles off the coast of New England. It boasts four extinct underwater volcanoes higher than any mountain east of the Rockies and three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. It’s a biodiversity hotspot that supports a spectacular array of marine life from endangered whales to deep-sea coral communities. A recent survey of the area documented more than 600 individual animals in the surface waters alone.

The lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association and other industry groups questioned President Obama’s authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the monument in the first place. Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act authorizes the President “to declare…objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments…confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

The lawsuit specified three claims, and the court rejected all of them, asserting that:

  1. The Antiquities Act applies to submerged land and associated waters, and the president can establish national monuments in the ocean.
  2. The federal government has sufficient control in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone – where the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is located – and the president can establish marine monuments in these waters.
  3. The fishing groups have not provided enough facts to support their claim that the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts covers too large an area, and the Antiquities Act authorizes the protection of ecosystems, even when they span large areas.

Judge Boasberg’s decision ultimately recognizes that the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was lawfully created. While threats to our ocean and our monument still lurk in the Administration and Congress, this decision is a win. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts deserves to be protected from threats like commercial fishing and oil and gas drilling, and those protections should remain for generations to come.

You can read the entire court opinion here.


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