President Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality has said they won’t create a marine national monument in the Cashes Ledge portion of the Gulf of Maine. The announcement revives a months-old debate about how best to protect some of New England’s richest and rarest ocean resources.
At issue are two dramatic – and dramatically different – areas off the coast of New England. The first is Cashes Ledge. Actually, the Ledge is just one feature of a larger area about eighty miles east of Cape Ann, sometimes called the Cashes Ledge complex. It is home to deep, lush kelp forests that have been compared to jungles for both their density and their ability to support a diversity of life, from sponges and lobsters, to fish and whales.
The second area lies some one hundred south-south-east of Cashes Ledge. Here, the seafloor that has been gently sloping away from the coast abruptly plunges into steep-walled canyons, some deeper than Grand Canyon. Their sides are dotted with rare deep-sea corals that, like scaled-down versions of their tropical reef-building cousins, provide habitat for sea stars, snails, and crabs. Farther offshore are seamounts of similar scale, and cracks in the seafloor leak methane and heat that allows rich ecosystems to thrive in the cold, dark deep ocean.
About a year ago, a coalition of environmental groups and scientists began pressing President Obama to use executive authority granted by the Antiquities Act to declare these two areas – some six thousand square miles in all – a marine national monument. Doing so would permanently protect them from all commercial activity, including fishing and mining.
The proposal sparked a debate about the role of public process in marine conservation. Many fishermen, as well as some ocean planners and scientists, felt that a presidential declaration would unfairly overwrite years of painstaking work by the New England Fishery Management Council, a fishing regulatory body that is required to engage scientists, stakeholders, and the public in its decision-making. The Council has maintained Cashes Ledge as an area largely closed to fishing for over a decade, and is in the early stages of considering protections for the New England canyons and seamounts. Currently, that area is not heavily fished, because of the deep, uneven terrain.