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The Monument Watch and How Trump Took the Bait to Strengthen Protections of Atlantic Ocean Realms

The trap had been set up by boisterous environmental groups arguing with fishermen. Not seeing the forest for the trees, or rather the school for the fish, President Trump stepped squarely into it. He opened the Northeast Canyons and Seamount Marine National Monument to commercial fishing while strengthening protections of the ocean park area.

Deeply unfair, it’s a terrible thing, said the president addressing fishermen in Bangor. A representative of the Maine Lobstermen’s Union said he was “a little disappointed” so much time was spent on a monument that “has nothing to do with Maine.” The monument is 140 miles Southeast of Nantucket. Of greater interest are the millions of dollars lost in lobster exports due to the China tariffs. A hardship they hold Trump responsible for.

The new national park area was created with an executive order by Barak Obama during his last months of office in 2016. He acted much like President Theodore Roosevelt when by executive order in 1908, Roosevelt stopped developers and mining industries in their tracks with creation of the Grand Canyon National Monument. This is how we protect watersheds and seas from the ravages of industry. It then takes years for Congress to recognize it as managed by the National Park Service, eleven years for the Grand Canyon National Park (1919).

The idea of protecting an offshore portion of the Atlantic Ocean originated with an environmental organization based in New York. They asked for my assistance with the blue water proposal in part because my organization is based in Massachusetts, the closest shore to proposed seascape. Support must start locally.

We met in a tall building downtown. Outside the massive windows were gray skies above a metallic sea of Boston Harbor. Graves Light winked like an expressionless cat far in the distance. The drumlin isles, Deer and Long Islands, had the look of couching cats facing each other across the water.

The proposed monument area featured three deep ocean canyons that cut into the lip of the continental plate along the outer edge of Georges Bank. Trapezoidal in shape, the park extended Eastward over the Sohm Abyssal Plain to include four seamounts that rose thousands of feet above the ocean floor. Seamount summits are always in complete darkness because they are more than 1,000 feet from the surface.

I was thrilled with the idea for a national park because I knew these waters having sailed them on the Research Vessel Westward as assistant scientist. Later, the New England Aquarium published an illustrated article I had written about shearwaters. Every time we crossed the deep-sea canyons, we saw sperm whales.

As Curator of Natural History at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, I led a sperm whale watch to one of the canyons. We left Gloucester early in the afternoon and steamed all night. In the morning, the shallow gun-metal gray waters of Georges Bank turned to Mediterranean blue as we voyaged out over the unimaginable depths of the canyon.

A sperm whale was sighted. The boat was brought up close to the whale. The whale did not move because it was dead, floating high in the water. I turned away from the window on the bridge to see the Captain climbing into a wetsuit with scuba gear at the ready. Turns out the Captain when not at sea worked as a jeweler and he was going to collect some whale teeth to carve and etch as scrimshaw. Sperm whale teeth were hard to acquire due to the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts.

Not knowing how to operate the ship, nor wishing to radio in a tragedy, I explained that the whale was swollen with methane and other decomposition gasses. One touch of the whale and it would explode. There’d be sharks everywhere. The Captain put his clothes on and we went on to find more sperm whales, alive all.

The sperm whale had been recently killed by a ship strike. After a few days, the gases are released, and the tattered carcass sinks to the bottom. This was a most unusual site. Likely a ship strike and whoever hit this whale may not have known it.

Making these waters a national park will protect whales by making known the plight of the only sperm whale population in federal waters off Nantucket. Observers in the area would give reason for ships making Atlantic passages to chart clearer courses.

Meanwhile, in Lydonia Canyon, one of the three canyons to be protected by the new monument park, big oil corporations requested oil and gas drilling leases. This industrial activity would not be good for more marine life than just sperm whales.

Another big threat and great treasure lie on top of the four seamounts. Over millennia rare-earth elements have precipitated out of sea water to form on porous basalt rock a ferromanganese crust. A shiny silvery-white metalloid, tellurium (Te), is rarer in the Earth’s crust than platinum. Tellurium with a double bond formed with boron becomes an alloy that is used in the fastest computer chips. Cadmium telluride, an alloy with cadmium, is the only solar cell thin-film element with lower costs than crystalline silicon. Thus, the tellurium alloy has the shortest energy payback time.

Tellurium is mined from ancient seamounts in China. By law, all manufacturing with tellurium alloys must be in China. Our demand for the fastest and cheapest drove solar and computer industries to look to ocean seamounts summits for remotely operated mountain-top removal. Mining that would obliterate unique assemblages of marine life.

The need for a national park area nearly the size of Connecticut (4,913 square miles), covering 1.5 percent of U.S. federal waters on the East Coast, was clear. The NE Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument has more pristine ocean ecosystems than any other similar sized ocean area. This one monument park increased protected ocean areas in the continental United States by 85 percent.

In Washington, at the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) within the Executive Office of President Obama, environmental advocates argued for the new park strictly on the grounds of no fishing. They were silent on larger, more permanent threats.

They spoke of a failed New England fisheries management system that for decades had failed fish and fishermen, alike, leading to a toxic cycle of overfishing, financial ruin, and distrust. They spoke as if it were 1972 before the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and well before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996.

Never part of the no fishing argument was that of the 232 commercially valuable fish stocks in U.S. waters, the number overfished since 2000 has decreased from 72 to 24 fish stocks. Two of the 24 overfished stocks are cod, cod in the Gulf of Maine and cod on Georges Bank and south of Cape Cod.

They blamed the fishery council for cod failing to recover after decades of “rebuilding.” Ignoring the fact these are the world’s southernmost cod stocks, bottom dwelling fish that are more susceptible to herbicide, pesticide, nitrogen run-off, and the bioaccumulation of glyphosate from the land as the waters warm and dissolved oxygen levels decline from global warming induced climate change.

The proposed ocean park waters are, in good weather, a twenty-hour cruise offshore. The blue fin tuna, arguably the most endangered fish of all, is caught in Massachusetts Bay. “Boston bluefin” due to presumably cold-water induced marbling of the muscles, fetches the highest fish price in the world.

Every commercial fishing boat carries a vessel monitoring system that continually reports location and speed. The only fishing in the proposed monument park was for butterfly fish, whiting, and Loligo squid. These relatively small-scale fisheries used mid-water trawls, fishing gear that is less harmful than bottom trawling or longlining.

However, during a tow a mid-water trawl net may hit the bottom on occasion and have brought up deep sea corals. Deep sea corals live below the reach of sunlight. Lacking photosynthetic algae, they grow very slowly. Three-thousand-year-old corals have been found. Therefore, mid-water trawling was stopped in the monument waters.

Far and away the most valuable fishery in the designated monument area was lobstering. Fourteen lobster boats set out from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and on the Lamprey River, New Market, New Hampshire. They work the ribbon of two-hundred-foot-deep water along the landward edge of the park. Unlike fishing boats who can fish elsewhere, there is no other place for these lobstermen to set their pots as they are working the very edge of the continental shelf.

The no-fishing battle lines were drawn over an artisanal fishery consisting of trappers who lower mesh-net traps to the ocean floor. The lobster pots continue to resemble and work the same way as did the wooden lath traps first designed in Swampscott by Ebenezer Thorndike in 1808. A spinning winch that hangs on a davit over the boat’s starboard rail pulls the line that lifts the trap out of the water. Swung onto the deck the trap is opened from above. Only regulation size lobsters are taken. If too small or too large, lobster with any other marine life are returned to the sea. A fishery cannot get less impactful to the ecosystem than that.

On one side, Senators argued for the livelihoods of their constituents. On the other side, environmental lobbyists tethered to their donor dogma argued for no commercial fishing what-so-ever. Admitting lobstering did no harm, the lobbyists relented to let the fishery of 14 boats continue to work for three years. Senators were frustrated and displeased to have to tell lobstermen they had three years to sell their boats and get out of the business. Creating the no-take monument would have no effect on the overall lobster catch that continues to rise annually.

Lobstermen sued the government while continuing to work the resource. Just when the window for lobstering by the fourteen vessels was closing, Trump decreed they may continue. He maintained the status quo. The actually taking of fish is directed by the National Marine Fisheries Service with advice from the fishery councils. The quotas for catching fish or lobsters did not change, just the rhetoric.

Trump spared the NE Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument the damage he inflicted on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Here, Trump took away from native American tribal nations, the twin buttes of sacred lands packed with ancestral Pueblo artifacts. He made these lands available, for a price, to cattle, mining, oil and gas drilling. The monument was broken into two parts. Bears Ears National Monument was reduced by 85%, down from 1.35-million acres. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was reduced to nearly half the size, down from 1.88-million acres. The resulting monuments now have a combined area of 201,876 acres. This is a reduction of 85% of monument acres.

One hundred forty miles southeast of Nantucket, at the edge of the continent before the waters plunge 10,000 feet down, up along the ramparts of the NE Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, fourteen lobster boats patrol and stop to haul in pot lines that are hundreds of feet in length. One gets to know a place by dwelling in it repeatedly around the calendar.

By his action, Trump has made sure that the Monument Watch continues. Lobstermen stand watch with fulmars, gannets, skua, petrels and shearwaters to guard pristine Atlantic Ocean ecosystems, Oceanographer, Gilbert and Lydonia Canyons, Bear, Physalia, Retriever, and Mytilus Seamounts, from oil, gas and mineral mining, as well as accidental spills and mishaps by passing ships.

Our work has just begun. Together, we protect and make known the whales, deep sea coldwater corals, benthic and pelagic marine life, plankton, nexton and neuston of the NE Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

For more information about Seamount Guardians and Canyon Rangers visit www.oceanriver.org

Rob Moir, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Ocean River Institute. He writes Clam Chowdah dot org blog and hosts Moir’s Environmental Dialogues iTalk radio.

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