By Dr. Peter J. Auster
On the heels of his expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii last month, last week President Obama cemented his legacy as one of our greatest conservation leaders by announcing the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the US waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Located 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the monument covers an area of 4,913 square miles. Its system of steep undersea canyons and massive seamounts – extinct undersea volcanoes – supports an extraordinary diversity of ocean wildlife including endangered sperm whales, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, oceanic sharks, swordfish, deep sea fish, and colorful deep sea corals, some estimated to be more than 1,000 years old.
I have studied deep sea communities for more than three decades, and have been privileged to lead and be part of multiple research expeditions to the canyons and seamounts area over the years. Each time I return humbled by its beauty, and by how much there is left to learn, and understand, about this truly special place – a place changing due to global climate change.
According to a study released earlier this year by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ocean temperatures in the Northeast are projected to warm close to three times faster than the global average. Additionally, the first of several assessments to analyze the impacts of climate change on fish stocks and fishing-dependent communities, found that warming oceans are threatening the majority of fish species in the region including salmon, lobster, scallops, and Atlantic cod, the fish that fueled the economy of our young Nation over two centuries ago.
In addition to suffering the impacts of climate change, overfishing and other development pressures, our oceans have become an unwilling participant in the global oil war and the quest for new technology. As supplies of precious metals used in cellphones, computers and other electronic devices become scarcer on land, mining companies increasingly are interested in exploiting ocean areas like seamounts where these metals also occur. Without protection, the canyons and seamounts would have remained open to the threat of development — and potential destruction — by commercial interests.
Permanent protection for our oceans not only helps increase their resilience, it may also help us unravel a major piece of the climate change puzzle, as the monuments themselves become “living laboratories,” to allow the research community to continue to monitor and better understand the impacts of climate change on our oceans and the life that dwells within them.
As technology continues to evolve, human activity will drive farther into the remaining wild places of our planet, and deeper into our oceans — and conservation must keep pace. With the designation of Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument and expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea monument, President Obama has set a standard that future Administrations should uphold: protecting the most wild and vulnerable parts of our natural heritage so that they can thrive as places of learning and wonder.
With so much remaining to be discovered, our vast ocean landscape is the next great frontier, worthy of a “moon shot” of its own. As a scientist, I certainly look forward to all that we will learn from this newest monument, protected in perpetuity. But the President’s action is so much more than that. It is a gift to the American people, to all of humanity.
This ocean wilderness and all of the wildlife it contains will inspire young and old with the wonders of the sea, of the deep sea regions of the Earth, for our children and grandchildren to come. Thank you Mr. President!
Dr. Peter J. Auster is a Senior Research Scientist at Mystic Aquarium and Research Professor Emeritus of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut