Will Obama protect the Atlantic’s Grand Canyons?

I was on an expedition off New England with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on 9/11. We were too far offshore to see the attack on TV though we were able to follow it on the radio. That night I watched some of the video taken by cameras aboard the submersible Alvin. These images were taken 4,500 feet down in the dark, crushing depths of Oceanographer Canyon. There were beautiful branching deep-sea corals in yellow, brown, and white, also large sponges, cutthroat eels, rattail fish, red crabs, luminescent purple shimmering squid, and other life abundant amid the marine snow (organic detritus falling from above). Someone then told me we were getting TV reception and I went to the lounge on the fo’c’sle (foreword deck) to see. Through a weak and snowy signal we saw our first images of the jetliners hitting the World Trade Center towers and the towers coming down.

For the rest of my days I’ll be stuck by those contrasting images of what we’re capable of as a species, from exploring and discovering new life in the most remote and challenging part of our ocean planet, to using modern technology to carry out mass murder in the heart of a great city.

{mosads}Sixteen years later the “War on Terror” has morphed into a war without end while our technologies have expanded to include commercially viable deepwater fishing, oil drilling and ocean mining. A few years after 9/11 I had a choice to return to war reporting or launch Blue Frontier, my non-profit citizen group dedicated to ocean conservation. My thought at the time was we’ll probably always have wars but we may not always have living reefs or healthy seas.

These same concerns have inspired a new coalition that includes Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, marine scientists and conservation groups who are calling on President Obama to establish the Atlantic Ocean’s first National Marine Monument before he leaves office. This would protect Oceanographer and four other massive undersea canyons off New England along with four nearby Sea Mounts (undersea mountains) that between them represent a unique deep water habitat, full of slow-growing coral gardens, sponges, crabs, squid and upwelling waters that feed both small fish like mackerel, big billfish, sharks and great whales including the endangered Northern Right Whale.

Presently, while there are some impressive marine monuments in U.S. Pacific waters west of Hawaii (established and expanded by both Presidents Bush and Obama), less than one percent of U.S. continental waters are fully protected.  On the 100th anniversary of our National Parks, sometimes called “America’s best idea” there are no Marine Monuments – the salty equivalent of National Parks – in the Atlantic Ocean. The coalition hopes that President Obama will change that absence before leaving office.

In March the Obama administration cancelled plans to protect Cashes Ledge a shallower ocean habitat 80 miles off Gloucester, Mass. in response to opposition from commercial fishermen and the politicians who take their cues from them forgetting that our public seas belong to all of us.  Unfortunately where one or a handful of saltwater special interests such as commercial fishing, the offshore oil industry or real-estate developers and sugar growers dominate decision-making, our coastal seas and the communities that depend on them tend to suffer.  That’s why there are so few cod off Cape Cod.  That’s why the estuaries and bayous of Louisiana are eroding and polluted and why parts of Florida’s coastlines are presently covered in a thick layer of foul-smelling toxic green algae. 

Only in places like California where there is a democracy of blue interests – surfers, beachgoers, whale watchers, fishermen, commercial and military ports, coastal homeowners and boating marinas – and where people understand the ocean is our common birthright and responsibility – do our public seas truly flourish.

New England’s Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area is 150 miles off Cape Cod and thousands of feet deep – some of the canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon.  Unlike Cashes Ledge they have no history of being heavily fished though several commercial fishermen in Connecticut have still complained that closing them off would threaten the seafood supply to consumers. 

They are in reality a unique near pristine frontier territory and a new opportunity to expand on the original National Parks idea that we ought to protect the best of our wilderness heritage.  Most Americans tend to think that our greatest unexplored natural wonders and wild frontiers are behind us, but that’s because most people tend not to think about the other 71 percent of our blue marble planet.  President Obama could protect something both unique and precious in New England’s Canyons and Seamounts but is likely do so only if the people of New England, and all Americans, from sea to shining sea, encourage him to.    

David Helvarg is an author and Executive Director of Blue Frontier (www.bluefront.org) an ocean conservation and policy group.  His book, ‘The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea’ will be out in paperback this fall.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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