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Common sense and science appear to have returned to United States environmental policy. In a flurry of executive orders during his first weeks in office, President Biden has committed to pausing oil and gas leasing on federal lands and offshore areas, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, reviewing the Trump Administration’s efforts to shrink national monuments, and pledging to protect from development 30% of federal lands and ocean by 2030.
These are all momentous steps forward after four years defined by climate denial and scorn for science. The day one executive order to review the boundaries and conditions of several monuments, including the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, is an especially critical step. Taken together with the order to protect 30% of the ocean, there is certainly reason for optimism about the future of this vital resource.
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is the Atlantic Ocean’s only marine national monument, and it includes close to 5,000 square miles of protected waters off the coast of Cape Cod.
From surface to seafloor, the canyons and seamounts are truly spectacular. The canyons cut thousands of meters below the sea’s surface, while the seamounts rise like mountains from the ocean floor. Together, they provide a home for all sorts of marine life, from ancient deep-sea corals growing in shades of pink and orange to blue whales, the largest animal on earth, swimming at the surface.
Unfortunately, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts are at risk. The Trump Administration unlawfully opened the monument to commercial fishing last summer, threatening the fragile species that call the area home. Large, heavy fishing gear can destroy coral communities that take decades and even centuries to recover, if at all. Fishing gear can also unintentionally entangle or snare marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. President Biden should restore the prohibition on commercial fishing in this area and quickly.
New England’s ocean, like all ocean waters worldwide, is also at extraordinary risk due to climate change and the unsustainable human uses of its resources. Three-quarters of the planet’s lands and two-thirds of its marine environments have been “significantly altered” by human activity. An estimated one million species are threatened with extinction, including about a third of sharks and shark relatives, a third of reef-forming corals, and over a third of marine mammals.
Finally, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s ocean waters, harming our fisheries like Atlantic cod and altering the distribution and feeding habits of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, further imperiling this species.
This reality is sobering. But there is still time to turn the story around. Restoring protections for areas like the monument and going further by setting aside 30% of the ocean as President Biden has promised will go a long way towards helping bolster the biological diversity of our waters and build ocean resilience to climate change.
A healthy ocean is critical to healthy life on Earth. The world’s oceans have absorbed the brunt of climate-damaging emissions over the last decades, and as a result, the waters are warmer, more acidic, starved of oxygen, and less habitable for fish and marine wildlife. Protected areas like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts are critical in the fight to give these waters and species a chance to recover. We know that setting aside parts of the ocean leads to healthy marine life, which fuels an abundance and diversity of life in adjacent waters. That, in turn, supports our ocean economy, including commercial and recreational fishing and whale watching in the long run. Everyone wins.
It’s going to take a lot more work to erase the disastrous environmental rollbacks from the last four years. But the recent announcements from the White House are reason for optimism about the next four. Biden’s focus on equity will ensure that the future of conservation will be one of inclusion and access to the natural world for everyone. The emphasis on conserving 30% of waters in areas like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts means we’re giving the ocean a shot at recovering from the damage humans have inflicted.
Today, we’re one step closer to leaving a healthy ocean environment for future generations.
Priscilla Brooks is a Vice President and the Director of Ocean Conservation at the Conservation Law Foundation. She is an original Friend of the Planet!
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