Opening Northeast Canyons to Commercial Fishing Compromises Protections for Marine Species

A study published today in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science found that opening the 3.14 million acre Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing reduces species protection in the richly diverse and vital ecological area.

The study used the Atlantic Ocean marine conservation area to explore the consequences of changing a policy that prevents fishing to a fisheries management policy. “The idea for this study was generated when former President Trump stated that appropriately managed commercial fishing would not put the objects of scientific and historic interest that the Monument protects at risk. To explore this idea, the study brought together scientists with a broad range of expertise: fisheries management, ocean policy, and the ecology of species ranging from marine mammals to deep sea corals,” said Jessica V. Redfern, a senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium and the study’s lead author.

Other authors of the study include: Kelly A. Kryc, formerly of the Aquarium and now with Center for American Progress; Lena Weiss, Brooke C. Hodge, Orla O’Brien, and Scott D. Kraus, all from the New England Aquarium; Ester Quintana , formerly of the Aquarium and now of Simmons University’s Department of Biology; and Peter J. Auster of Mystic Aquarium and the University of Connecticut’s Department of Marine Sciences.

“We found that opening the Monument to commercial fishing reduces species protection,” the authors wrote, adding that fixed gear fishing equipment exposes species to entanglement and bycatch risk and gear used at the bottom of the ocean exposes deep sea coral to damaging effects. The Monument “was designated as a marine national monument due to the area’s unique ecological resources that are a subject of scientific interest. Our case study demonstrates that a fisheries management policy is insufficient to protect these ecological resources,” they concluded.

The Monument, located 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, is a majestic deep-water sanctuary for thousands of marine animals and sea birds amid colorful corals, steep canyons, and vast mountain ranges akin to those in national parks out West.

In 2016, after years of research, scientists from Mystic Aquarium, University of Connecticut Groton, and New England Aquarium provided crucial evidence about the area’s rich biodiversity, leading President Obama to designate it a national marine protected area. His proclamation excluded all commercial-scale activities, including fishing and mineral extraction, with a seven-year moratorium for existing offshore lobster and red crab fisheries. President Trump lifted restrictions on commercial fishing in June 2020, opening large sections of the Monument to fishing again. The Biden-Harris Administration is considering restoring protections as part of their plan to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

“One of today’s greatest conservation challenges is applying our many natural resource laws, policies, and management strategies to accommodate a diversity of ocean uses and human needs,” said Peter Auster, one of the study’s authors. “We need to address both sustainable use of economically valuable ocean resources and conserve precious marine biodiversity, our collective natural heritage.”

Kelly Kryc of the Center for American Progress said: “The combined climate and biodiversity crises caused by unchecked human activities need to be addressed urgently. Marine protected areas, like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, can help the ocean restore itself and remain resilient in the face of ongoing change. Strong protections—including from commercial fishing—are needed to ensure a healthy ocean for all who depend on it.”

 Orla O’Brien, a New England Aquarium scientist and co-author of the study, has been conducting aerial surveys of the Monument with Aquarium colleagues from 2017 to 2020 and observed large numbers of marine mammals such as fin, blue, sperm, sei, humpback, beaked, pilot whales as well as bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, striped dolphins, oceanic rays, and sharks. “The Monument is a place of amazing biodiversity,” she said. “Our research reinforces how important this protected area is to so many species, and that it is critical to keep protections in place for these animals.”

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