President Donald Trump signed a proclamation in Bangor on Friday that he says will undo most of the fishing restrictions President Barack Obama ordered for a 5,000-square-mile swath of submerged canyons and mountains off the Atlantic coast that’s prized for its biological diversity. A legal battle is expected.
Obama established the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in 2016. It’s an area 130 miles off Cape Cod, within an much larger underwater formation called Georges Bank that plays a big role in commercial fisheries based in New England.
At the Bangor roundtable with several representatives of Maine and Massachusetts fishing interests — as well as former Republican Gov. Paul LePage — Trump said he would take the “no fishing” sign down from the Monument’s waters.
“And we’re going to send our fishermen out there — you’re going to go fishing out there in areas that you haven’t seen for a long time, I want to just congratulate you,” he said.
Obama actually provided a 7-year exemption for lobster and crab fishermen, and conservationists say there are no Maine vessels fishing now in the area, which is a very long distance from the state. Trump’s action would likely benefit tuna and swordfish boats the most.
But Kristan Porter, a Cutler fishermen and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told Trump the Monument’s designation nonetheless harmed his industry.
“Well he [Obama] has done Maine a tremendous disservice, just from a common-sense standpoint. How could you let a thing like this happen?” Trump said.
“This created poor policy, it hurt the fishermen,” Porter said. “We really worry about the precedent it sets, that you can close large areas of ocean and put all the rest of us who fish for different things in smaller and smaller boxes.”
“But it represents only 1.5 percent of our federal waters in the Atlantic, which leaves all the rest of this region for commercial fishing,” says Peter Auster, a scientist at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut who has studied the monument area for decades, both diving and with unmanned submersibles.
Auster says the area is unique because of its confluence of geographic features — canyons and mountains — that provide species diversity, abundant feeding grounds and rare, pristine deep-sea coral forests.
“One of the benefits of the monument, besides knowing that there is a place that represents the natural heritage of our country, is that an area that’s not impacted by commercial-scale human activities. It’s a place we can use to judge the effects of all the things that we do,” he says.
Trump called on the fishing interests that joined him in the Bangor hangar to be careful with the resource, and to continue good conservation practices. But even before he signed his new proclamation, a host of environmental groups were lining up against it.
“The president has no authority to do this. The president has the authority under the Antiquities Act to create National Monuments. The only body that has authority to change the boundaries, conditions, the terms that govern a national monument, is the Congress,” says Sean Mahoney, who directs the state of Maine chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation.
Mahoney’s group and several others are already promising lawsuits.