President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday directing his interior secretary to review every designation of a national monument over the last 21 years. That order puts the future of the first marine national monument — about 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod — in question.
It was one of the last official acts of Barack Obama’s presidency — designating nearly 5,000 square miles off the Massachusetts coast as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
"We're protecting fragile ecosystems off the coast of New England, including pristine underseas canyons and seamounts," Obama said at the time. "We're helping make the oceans more resilient to climate change, and this will help fishermen better understand the changes that are taking place that will affect their livelihoods. And we're doing it in a way that respects the fishing industry's unique role in New England's economy and history."
But when Donald Trump signed his executive order, it called such monument designations a massive federal land grab.
“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water," Trump said. "And it’s time we ended this abusive practice.”
Among the local groups that agree with Trump are lobstermen.
“To have one person to have such a unilateral power is, as we see it, is unconstitutional," said Beth Casoni of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. "It’s going to put thousands of people out of work and hundreds of millions of dollars lost to the economy here in the northeast.”
The Massachusetts lobstermen were joined by several other northeast fishing organizations in filing a federal lawsuit challenging the monument designation. That suit is now beginning to work its way through the courts.
The monument designation banned most commercial fishing within 60 days, while lobster pot and crab pot fisheries were given seven years to clear out. Casoni said fishermen were already working with government agencies to make sure the area is fished responsibly.
“Those management measures are in place," she said. "So let the fisheries managers and the fishing industry work together to determine how best to keep these pristine waters pristine, while coexisting with commercial fishing.”
Environmentalists who had cheered President Obama are now in shock. Brad Sewell of the Natural Resources Defense Council said a rollback of any of the nation’s monuments would be tragic and unprecedented.
“And it would really amount to a sellout of the American people for a favored few,” he said.
The offshore monument, Sewell says, has underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and mountains bigger than anything east of the Rockies.
“It’s home to whales and Atlantic puffins and countless fish species in these lush communities of deep-sea corals," he said. He fears all of these could now be at risk.
Sewell said the designation came after a public process received a lot of support, and was ultimately a compromise.
“Its area was cut back quite a bit from what was originally proposed to protect the most important resources while ensuring that the more valuable fishing areas were not included,” he said.
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is just one of dozens of national monuments that will now be reevaluated, totaling more than 100,000 acres. The Secretary of the Interior has 45 days to conduct the review and respond with his recommendations.