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Gulf of Maine's Cashes Ledge: Efforts to Extend Federal Protections Rankles Fishing Industry

Robert Lamb
Screen shot from underwater video
Cod swim through kelp forests on Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine.

Several conservation groups are calling on the White House to designate an area of the Gulf of Maine as a National Monument. The Cashes Ledge Closed Area is considered important habitat for cod, and The Conservation Law Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and others say it must be protected.

This story includes a clarification. See Editor's Note below.

But opponents of the idea, including Maine Gov. Paul LePage, say such a move is undemocratic and unfair to fishermen.

The area known as Cashes Ledge is about 80 miles off the Maine and the Massachusetts coast, covers about 500 square miles and contains the largest kelp forest in the North Atlantic.

(Cod swim through the extensive kelp forests on Cashes Ledge in this video shot in June 2015 by Brown University graduate student Robert Lamb.)


It contains an underwater mountain range where the highest peak - known as Ammen Rock - comes to within 30 feet of the ocean surface. Not only is it a beautiful and diverse habitat, says Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation, "but Cashes Ledge is such a key area if we're going to have any hopes of restoring iconic fish like cod."

Mahoney says that's because Cashes Ledge is one of the few areas where big fertile female codfish can be found. "And unless we can preserve those and allow them to try and repopulate, we might as well say goodbye to cod for my kids, and certainly my grandchildren," Mahoney says.

Mahoney will be among those gathered at the New England Aquarium in Boston Wednesday evening for an event designed to showcase the importance of Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts off Cape Cod. They're hoping to convince the White House to designate these areas as marine national monuments - a power granted under the Antiquities Act, which was introduced by President Roosevelt in 1906.

Most of Cashes Ledge is already closed to commercial fishing by regulators and has been for 13 years. But a national monument designation - which would be the first in the Atlantic Ocean - would also make that closure permanent, with no prospect of re-opening it to commercial fishing.

"It's basically a common-sense idea - you can't take everything out of the Gulf of Maine and expect it to be healthy," says Philip Conkling, founder of the Rockland-based Island Institute, a non-profit that supports Maine's coastal communities.

Maintaining closed areas, he says, is beneficial to the fishing industry in the long run, "because they serve as a refuge, basically, for where biodiversity can regenerate itself."

Cashes Ledge is not completely closed to commercial harvesters - some lobstering is allowed. But that would also likely be phased out if the area were declared a national monument.
"Maine lobstermen should not be frozen out of an historic fishing area by the stroke of a presidential pen, but rather, if it's going to happen, it should be done through a democratic process," says Bob Vanasse. Vanasse is with the fishing industry advocacy group Saving Seafood.

Vanasse says there's a regulatory process in place to deal with issues like habitat protection, and he says using the Antiquities Act to create marine monuments is not an appropriate use of presidential power. "Nor do I think it's the best way to do the kind of wide consultative survey of stakeholders, scientists, fishery managers, fishermen ecologists, that's necessary to make the best decisions to protect distinctive features in the ocean."

Maine Governor Paul LePage agrees. Last week, LePage wrote a letter to President Obama objecting to the prospect of Cashes Ledge becoming a marine monument. National marine monuments, he says, "serve only one purpose: excluding commercial fishing activity from certain segments of the ocean."

And this, he goes on to say, would negatively impact many Mainers who make their living from the sea.

Video credit: Cod swim through the extensive kelp forests on Cashes Ledge in this video shot in June 2015 by Brown University graduate student Robert Lamb.

A clarification on this story: Philip Conkling was a founder of the Rockland-based Island Institute, but he is no longer with the organization and the views he expresses in this story are his own.