Permanently protecting nearly 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains, the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean was designated by President Barack Obama on September 15, 2016.
Formed millions of years ago by extinct volcanoes and sediment erosion, seamounts and sea canyons are some of the oldest and most mysterious locations on Earth. They are fragile ecosystems, rich in biodiversity, offering a dark and exotic haven to many rare and endangered species.
Located around 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument represents the 27th time that President Obama has created or expanded a national monument.
Protecting National Treasures
The new monument is designated under authority granted by Congress in the 1906 Antiquities Act. Beginning with President Theodore Roosevelt, 16 presidents have used this authority to designate and protect such national treasures as the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients, and the C & O Canal.
More than any other president, Obama has used this authority on 27 occasions to designate and preserve hundreds of millions of acres of public lands and waters.
The creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was made at the 3rd annual Our Ocean Conference hosted by US Secretary John Kerry and the US State Department. It was only three weeks earlier that President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean to 373 million acres, making it the world’s largest protected area.
US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell applauded President Obama’s announcement. She stated that this designation “will help protect the unique geology and biodiversity of these important underwater features and wildlife species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.”
US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker agreed, stating, “The United States is a leader in ocean stewardship and marine conservation.”
The Conservation Law Foundation CLF has been actively helping raise awareness about this region of the North Atlantic Ocean. CLF President Bradley Campbell told Planetsave in an email, “more than a century after Teddy Roosevelt began a legacy of protecting America’s special places, President Obama has taken the baton and carried it to new heights.”
Campbell continued, “From valleys deeper than the Grand Canyon, to peaks as high as Mount Washington, to the hundreds of diverse and endangered species that call this place home, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is the embodiment of a treasure worthy of such permanent protection.”
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument
Climbing to a height of 7,000 feet off the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, the newly protected Northeast seamounts are taller than the highest peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Some of the newly protected Northeast canyons are even deeper than the Grand Canyon, descending more than a mile below the ocean floor.
Two separate areas are included in the monument. The first area contains four seamounts, or “undersea mountains,” including Bear, Mytilus, Physalia, and Retriever. The second area contains three undersea canyons that descend deep into the continental shelf, including Oceanographer, Lydonia, and Gilbert.
At approximately 4,913 square miles, this newly-protected area in the Atlantic Ocean is equivalent to approximately three million acres. This is significantly less than the 300 million protected acres in the Pacific Ocean. However, under the joint administration of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the new monument will be covered by the highest level of oceanic protections.
David Houghton, President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, states, “The creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is a victory for conservation that will have positive impacts that reach far beyond the monument’s boundary.”
Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystems in the Atlantic Ocean
Deep-sea corals have existed in this area for more than a millennia, creating rich, biodiverse ecosystems with unique oceanographic conditions. In recent explorations of the Northeast seamounts, NOAA’s research vessel Okeanos Explorer identified 15 previously unreported species of coral, several of which are believed to exist nowhere else on Earth.
Whales, dolphins, and turtles also call this unique location their home, as well as migratory tuna, bullfish, and sharks. A wide variety of birds also frequently feed in this area of the Atlantic Ocean.
Designating this area as a monument ensures generations of expanded and continuous protection for these fragile species, habitats, and ecosystems.
This stunning underwater oasis is our nation’s newest national monument: Northeast Canyons & Seamounts Marine pic.twitter.com/r7Qq0Ye5Xj
— US Department of the Interior (@Interior) September 15, 2016
Ensuring Protection from Overfishing and Climate Change
Commerce Secretary Pritzker notes, “This designation follows extensive engagement with various stakeholder groups and ensures conservation of important marine species and recognizes the strong economic and cultural value of fishing in the region.”
Pritzker explains, “From sea level rise to ocean acidification to warming ocean temperatures, climate change is affecting our nation’s fisheries and fishing communities. Now, it is more important than ever to protect these valuable resources.”
However, although the original proposal for the new marine monument was larger than the 4,913 square miles ultimately protected, economic factors weighed heavily in the final decision. Local commercial fishermen’s concerns were appreciated and changes were made to ensure their livelihoods would not be overly impacted by the new conservation measures.
Commercial fishing and other resource extraction activities are now prohibited within the boundaries of the new monument. The only exceptions are for the red crab fishery and American lobster fishery which will undergo a seven-year phase-out of existing permits. In addition, a 60-day grace period is now in effect to help ensure an orderly dismissal of prohibited fisheries.
Recreational fishing and scientific research will still be allowed, but permits are now required.
Expected to have a positive “spillover effect,” the newly protected area will ultimately lead to increased populations of popular commercial fish species, such as tuna. In turn, this increase will benefit the whales and other marine life in the North Atlantic Ocean, as well.
The newly designated monument “will now be protected and preserved for future generations,” states Interior Secretary Jewell, noting that the area will now be “serving as an important natural laboratory for research and enhanced understanding of the impacts of climate change on our oceans.”
Explore the New Atlantic Ocean Marine Monument:
First Marine National Monument Designated in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean, uploaded by PewTrusts.org:
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer video of Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition 2013, uploaded by NOAA: