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Fate of First Marine National Monument May Be Decided in Court

The future of the first Atlantic marine national monument will likely be decided in court. A lawsuit that challenges the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument remains on hold, as fishermen’s groups wait to hear specific recommendations from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke announced this week he would not recommend eliminating any national monuments, but he would propose some changes. Supporters of the marine monument off of Cape Cod say if any changes go through, they’ll mount a legal challenge.

The creation of the 5,000 square-mile monument on the edge of Georges Bank this past September closed the area to commercial fishing. Soon after, five fishing organizations across New England filed a lawsuit. The attorney who represents them, Jonathan Wood of the Pacific Legal Foundation, says the suit was put on hold while the monuments were under review.

“It remains on hold, and I suppose until we know what the president is going to do, it will stay on hold,” Wood says.

The lawsuit challenges the authority that President Obama used when he created the monument. Wood says federal law only allows presidents to designate monuments on land owned or controlled by the government.

“And the ocean, 100 miles from the United States, is obviously not land,” says Wood. “But it’s also not owned or controlled by the federal government.”

Wood says the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument designation should be revoked. And though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced this week he would not recommend any monument be eliminated, Wood is hopeful that President Trump will.

“He could still decide to revoke the monument, to change the boundary substantially, or to reduce the fishing restrictions,” says Wood.

But supporters of the monument, like Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation, oppose any changes.

“It’s essentially a revocation of the purpose of the monument,” says Shelley, “And all you would have there is essentially another paper park.”

Shelley says former President Obama had already made compromises in response to fishermen’s concerns when he designated the monument. He significantly reduced its size, and allowed crab and lobster fishermen with existing permits to continue operations for seven years.

Dr. Peter Auster, a senior research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, says the monument carves out just 1.5 percent of the total area available for exploitation off the east coast of the US.

“This would be the only place that’s protected in perpetuity from all forms of commercial extractive activity,” Auster says.

A place that Auster says should be protected because it’s so unique.

“The canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon,” says Auster. “And the seamounts part of the monument – the mountains rise taller than anything east of the Rockies.

The canyons and submarine mountains are home to a number of ecological zones and creatures, including more than 50 species of deep sea coral. Peter Shelley says if President Trump weakens protections, the Conservation Law Foundation will take the issue to court – a place that will likely determine the final outcome of this monument.

This story was originally published Aug. 25, 2017 at 6:14 p.m. ET.