Northeast (NE) Canyons and Seamounts Monument Designation Stands

A sea urchin (center) surrounded by corals in the NE Canyons and Seamounts Monument   Photo: Luis Lamar, National Geographic

At the end of December, an appeals court in Washington, D.C. upheld the designation by President Obama of the first national “monument” in the Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Monument off the coast of Cape Cod, an area teeming with unique and endangered wildlife (such as North Atlantic Right Whales) and a spectacular topography of deep canyons and extinct volcanic peaks.  The monument was challenged by the fishing industry who argued that Obama exceeded his authority under the Antiquities Act that allows Presidents to designate special places and things as protected without a long rule-making process.

Why This Matters:  This is a clear win for the conservation of natural resources.  The area covered by the monument is full of ocean wonders and is as deserving of protection as similarly precious places on land — like Yellowstone or Yosemite.  When President Trump took office, he immediately took aim at national monuments and eventually reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante by 45% and Bears Ears by 85%.  At the time he threatened to do the same to the NE Canyons and Seamounts saying that President Obama had exceeded his authority to designate the Atlantic ocean area a monument.  This court decision by a three-judge panel including a Reagan appointee makes clear that Obama was well within his authority.  And it provides more support for the legal challenges to the reductions Trump made to the two other monuments.  Numerous environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Earth Justice, Center for American Progress, National Ocean Protection Coalition and Conservation Law Foundation, worked hard to defend the monument even after the Trump administration sided with the fishing groups.

The Monument’s Wonders

The wondrous resources contained in the monument area are hard to see due to its remote location, but they have been studied extensively by the government and private scientistsAccording to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the monument is a pristine area and “contains a mosaic of diverse habitat types, ranging from the rich shelf break environment around the canyon heads to the exotic deep-sea environment of the seamounts that rise thousands of feet off the lower continental slope, that contribute to an unusually high number and abundance of species. These include 73 different types of deep-sea corals, two dozen of which were recently discovered for the first time in the region and some of which live for thousands of years and grow several meters in height.”  Research into deep-sea organisms is important to understanding the ocean and could lead to medical breakthroughs.

Threats to the Monument Area

Fishing is a threat to marine life in the monument — the gear being used now goes to deeper depths and can indiscriminately capture wildlife and damage corals and other precious natural resources. Moreover, the potential for mineral extraction and oil and gas exploration in the future would also severely damage this pristine place. According to the scientists, many of the species are extremely slow-growing and long-lived and so if damaged by fishing or mining, it could take hundreds of years or longer for the resources to recover.

To Go Deeper:  We highly recommend this 2018 National Geographic story about the wonders of the NE Canyons and Seamounts.  This guide by Earth Justice is also excellent.

Map: Center for American Progress

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