The Scientific Case for National Monuments

A snake star entwined itself tightly around the branches of an octocoral as seen on dive 8 of the Deep Connections 2019 expedition. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deep Connections 2019.

by Dr. Gareth Lawson

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument holds a special place in my heart. This monument, designated by President Obama four years ago this week, protects crucial marine habitats for incredible species, from whales to corals, along the edge of the New England continental shelf.

Unfortunately, this monument is currently under attack: President Trump recently opened the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts to commercial fishing. This proclamation is illegal – no president has the power to undo protections to a monument on land or in the water.  The president may not care much for the rule of law but allowing industrial fishing gear in the monument will have catastrophic implications for marine life and our fight against the climate crisis.

Not many people have the privilege to visit these offshore places, but I have led research expeditions to the canyons surrounding the monument to learn how these deep-water ecosystems work and have seen firsthand the immense scientific value they offer.

The monument encompasses four seamounts and three underwater canyons just 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.  The canyons and seamounts are ocean hotspots, with a variety of species vastly more abundant than in surrounding waters, including rare species like cold-water corals – at least 60 different species of these fragile organisms live in the monument, including species that have been found nowhere else on Earth. And we’re still discovering new ones.

This is one of many reasons why repealing the protections that allow this special place to thrive is disastrous.

The canyons cut deep into the continental shelf and are home to a rich food web – including the prey species I have studied, like krill and small, weird deep-water fishes like hatchet fish and lantern fish. At the canyon heads, we’ve seen layers of krill over a hundred feet thick and extending for miles out from the canyon wall. This makes the water above the canyons an ideal feeding ground for animals like squid and forage fish, as well as top predators like whales, dolphins, and large fish like silver hake.

Canyons support so much of the marine ecosystem that they have been called “keystone structures.” Like a keystone species, the ecosystem depends on these structures and would change drastically without them.

The seamounts lie beyond the continental shelf and rise thousands of feet from the ocean floor. They provide a shallower habitat for a variety of bottom-dwellers like deep-sea corals and sponges. Seamounts create “oases” in the ocean that provide migratory predators like tunas, sharks, and marine mammals plenty of food.

At Bear Seamount, the most studied of the monument’s seamounts, surveys have documented a wide diversity of animals, like fishes, squids, and crustaceans, several of which were new records for the region or species rarely seen on our side of the Atlantic – and yet our best estimate is that we’ve only discovered roughly half of Bear Seamount’s rich biodiversity.

The monument’s status bars commercial fishing and drilling in the protected canyons and seamounts. It’s critical that these structures maintain their protections. Allowing large-scale fishing gear in the monument would be devastating. One trawl could take out coral formations that have been living deep in the monument for centuries.

Protecting precious ocean resources is also a vital part of solving the climate crisis. As we have continued to pump carbon pollution into the atmosphere, our oceans have borne the brunt. After decades of enduring this abuse, the world’s oceans are warmer, more acidic, and losing oxygen. Protecting areas like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is a small step towards rebuilding the biodiversity and resiliency of our oceans.

That’s why Conservation Law Foundation and NRDC havefiled a lawsuit challenging the decision to open the monument to commercial fishing. Put simply, the President does not have the legal authority to alter or change national monuments.

There is so much that remains to be discovered and understood in the canyons and seamounts. It is vital that we preserve these fascinating and ecologically important sites as living laboratories for exploration and research. We must protect biodiversity as an entire ecosystem, including everything we have yet to document. On this four year anniversary of the monument’s creation, we must continue to resist President Trump’s continued assault on our protected lands and waters.


Dr. Gareth Lawson is a marine scientist and Senior Fellow in Conservation Law Foundation’s Oceans Program. He previously conducted research of fisheries, ecosystems, and climate change at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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