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Not so fast on Atlantic marine monument

An ongoing campaign led by large, well-funded environmental organizations is urging President Obama to use the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate parts of the Atlantic Ocean—such as Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine and the New England Canyons and Seamounts—as marine National Monuments. In September, I had the privilege of testifying before House Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans about the aspect of this proposal that seeks to exclude historic fisheries from the designated area.

The Antiquities Act, originally enacted to give Teddy Roosevelt authority to protect vulnerable Native American archeological sites, allows the president to act quickly, unilaterally, and without Congressional oversight to preserve sites in danger of destruction. The act, while undoubtedly created in good faith, has been misused in the case of marine monuments to a frightening extent.

{mosads}In my case, the red crab fishing business I’ve been operating for twenty years is active in some of the areas under the proposal. Not only has our fishery complied with every regulation, but we have expended significant resources and time to ensure the health of the resource we fish.  We were the first U.S. Atlantic Coast fishery certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, demonstrating we have minimal impact on the health of the species and its environment. Additionally, we are listed as “Ocean-Friendly” by the New England Aquarium Seafood Guide program. 

Although these processes took years of effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars—a significant cost for a fishery of our size—it was important that we understood how the red crab fishery impacted the environment and demonstrated that our practices were indeed sustainable. 

These efforts to both understand and minimize our impact on the environment have been so successful that after forty years of red crab fishing, our fishing grounds are described as “pristine” by the same environmental groups who seek the monument designation. If these habitats are still “pristine” after forty years of fishing, how can a serious argument be made that the area is in imminent danger and in need of immediate, unilateral protection by presidential fiat? By labeling our fishery as an imminent threat despite our ability to keep the area pristine, these environmental groups have both ignored the facts and devalued our successful efforts to operate a sustainable fishery.

In addition, those of us who have fished sustainably and responsibly in the area for decades have had our voices almost completely shut out of this process. A prime example was the September 15 “town hall” meeting held by NOAA in Providence, Rhode Island. Hastily arranged, many fishermen who would be affected by the proposals were not even aware that it took place. Those in attendance were provided no firm details on the scope of the proposal, preventing them from commenting substantively about something that could dramatically affect or even eliminate their livelihoods. There’s no guarantee that there will be any future opportunity for those affected to voice their concerns. The Antiquities Act does not require such input, and a designation could come at any time.

The best way to manage our nation’s public resources is to involve the public. By soliciting the opinions of scientists, experts, policymakers, and stakeholders, we’ve managed to balance the protection of our natural resources with the needs of the people who depend on them. The regional fishery management councils, as well as legislation like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), provide open and consultative mechanisms for conserving marine species and fragile ecosystems, where input from the public is given its proper weight. There is no need to abandon these established public processes to protect marine areas. 

The current process has already led to substantial conservation successes. It has been used to protect more than 61,000 square miles of ocean bottom off the South Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic coasts. The New England Fishery Management Council is currently developing its own regulations to protect deep-sea corals. Recent actions by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to protect 38,000 square miles of ocean bottom have even been cited as a model for future ocean policy by the same conservationists who seek to circumvent these procedures. 

In April, 2010, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing the “America’s Great Outdoors Initiative” to “promote and support innovative community-level efforts to conserve outdoor spaces and to reconnect Americans to the outdoors.”  In the ensuing report the administration pledged to implement “a transparent and open approach to new national monument designations tailored to engaging local, state, and national interests.”

Those of us whose livelihoods could be devastated by the proposed marine monument designations can only hope that the administration will heed its own guidelines.

Williams is the president of the Atlantic Red Crab Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He testified on this issue before the Water, Power, and Oceans subcommittee in a Sept. 29 hearing.


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