We need bold action from our global leaders to address the current biodiversity and climate crisis, a threat that can no longer be spoken of in the future tense, as it is having a very real and immediate impact on our present. Just today, President Biden took such action by restoring protections to the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the only marine monument in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean. Because of this, New England’s rich marine life will be better protected from human activity, including the impact of climate change.
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is located approximately 130 miles off the coast of New England and includes four undersea mountains and three undersea canyons. Roughly the size of Connecticut, this region is renowned for its biodiversity, including long-lived, deep-sea coral communities and large concentrations of marine wildlife, including endangered deep-diving sperm whales and critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Species that frequent the monument include a vast array of whales, dolphins, seabirds, and sea turtles, as well as large predatory fish such as tuna, billfish, swordfish, and sharks.
Mystic Aquarium’s Dr. Peter Auster and New England Aquarium’s Dr. Scott Kraus spent decades studying the region. In 2016, we worked together with regional collaborators such as University of Connecticut and Conservation Law Foundation to build a strong case for setting aside this area as a Marine National Monument. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) stepped forward and submitted a proposal with large support across the New England congressional delegation to President Obama, urging him to protect the area from harmful activities such as offshore oil and gas drilling, deep seabed mining, and commercial-scale fishing. Establishing this marine protected area conserves biodiversity and provides a refuge for ocean wildlife, particularly in the face of climate change.
After a comprehensive stakeholder engagement process, President Obama designated the canyons and seamounts as a marine national monument in 2016, drawing on research showing the biological richness and fragility of the area. This action was taken under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorizes the president to set aside federally owned or controlled lands and waters for scientific and other purposes in perpetuity. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to use this statute. Since then, sixteen presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, have used the Act to protect our nation’s rich natural and cultural heritage. It is one of America’s most important conservation tools.
Since its designation, the protections for the monument have been challenged, and last summer, an executive order from President Donald Trump lifted the restriction on commercial fishing, reopening this fragile area to destructive practices. In response, Senator Blumenthal and 18 of his colleagues—including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)—submitted a letter opposing this action. This helped pave the way for the Biden Administration to call for a review of the rollback of protections for this monument, as well as two land monuments in Utah—Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante.
Following completion of that review and after taking input from the full range of stakeholders, the President this week restored protections for all three monuments. This would not have been possible if Senator Blumenthal had not been such a strong ocean champion for the monument. Fellow New England congressional leaders Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, Rhode Island Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, and then-Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo also helped the Obama Administration shape the original proposal including input from Sen. Markey to support New England’s fishing industry in the process.
Likewise, collaboration between scientists at Mystic Aquarium and the New England Aquarium led to a study published in July in Frontiers in Marine Science that found that opening the monument to commercial fishing would impact protection of marine species that inhabit the vital 3.14 million acre area. President Biden’s action this week restores that protection.
The creation of the monument off the coast of New England provides a great opportunity for scientists to study this spectacular “living laboratory” and better understand how the ocean works. At Mystic Aquarium, we have been able to share this natural wonder with the public through the creation of an immersive exhibit about the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The exhibit has reached millions of visitors, including thousands of school children, and has been expanded through the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which co-manages the Monument along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, offering guests an interactive look at the fascinating ocean area they would likely never be able to see up close.
We thank the Biden Administration, Senator Blumenthal, and other members of the New England delegation for their continued commitment to science, to conserving our natural heritage, and to protecting special places in the ocean.
By Stephen M. Coan and Vikki N. Spruill
Stephen M. Coan is President and CEO of Mystic Aquarium, and Vikki N. Spruill is President and CEO of the New England Aquarium.