By Meghan Lapp
Last year, on September 3, an unexpected email announcement was distributed via NOAA’s listserve. It gave stakeholders a two week notice of a “Town Hall” meeting to be held on September 15, announcing that the Administration was considering designating several New England deep sea canyons as Marine National Monuments, for protection of deep sea corals. During this meeting, every participant was limited to a two minute time slot of verbal comments. However, we were not even sure what was being proposed, because no boundary lines had been drawn or even hinted at. We were asked to comment on the concept of a Marine Monument in the area, not an actual proposal with any defined boundaries.
Holding just this one public meeting to allow for stakeholder input, NOAA released a comment portal through which stakeholders were directed to submit further comment. Attempting to protect our vessels’ interests, I submitted not only written comments but proprietary information documenting our fishing activity in the area, to argue that our fishing grounds needed to be kept open. When I inquired, no one at NOAA could tell me how long the comment period would remain open, although the agency was administering the comment portal. Neither could anyone at the agency inform me how or why this discussion was initiated, if there was any specific process being followed, who would be reviewing our comments, who would be presenting them, and to whom. As a company which has participated many times in public process, especially on fisheries issues, it is disturbing that we were left completely in the dark with an issue that has the potential to put us out of business.
This initiative came soon after the Mid Atlantic Council had completed a Deep Sea Corals Amendment designed to protect deep sea corals in offshore canyons, the same alleged justification for the proposed Marine Monuments. The MAFMC’s Deep Sea Coral Amendment process included extensive stakeholder input, including an interactive, collaborative workshop to draw boundary lines, in which Seafreeze was an active participant. This workshop involved many of the same individuals and environmental organizations who have been intensely lobbying for Marine Monument designation of the New England canyons. The push for Marine Monument designations of the New England canyons also coincided with the New England Council’s resuming of work on its own Deep Sea Corals Amendment in the area in question, making it very clear that the same environmental groups which weeks before had been praising and receiving awards for participation in the MAFMC Corals Amendment’s collaborative process were not at all interested in true collaboration with the fishing industry moving forward. They clearly did not get what they wanted through a transparent and deliberative process, so moved to eliminate that process altogether by designation of Marine Monuments rather than engagement with the New England Fishery Management Council.
In fact, shortly after the single public meeting, fisheries media outlet Saving Seafood requested and obtained public record emails detailing strategic lobbying activity by a coalition of environmental groups including Conservation Law Foundation, National Resources Defense Council, Pew Charitable Trusts, Earthjustice, National Geographic, and the Center for American Progress, which included not only a concrete monument proposal but also allusion to inside information, warnings about talking to the “outside world” about their campaign, and possible designation dates. [i] Although no designation occurred at that time, the onslaught of misinformation to the public and pressure on the Administration continues through these organizations.
Several attempts have been made by Congress to block any New England Marine Monuments and Presidential use of the Antiquities Act to designate them. Following the “Town Hall” meeting and environmental email scandal, the House Committee on Natural Resources held an oversight hearing in the issue and wrote a letter to the Administration requesting further information on its designation of marine monuments. Both focused on the lack of transparency, “apparent collusion and influence of environmental groups with regard to the Interior Department’s designation process”, and lack of local input.[ii] Congressmen Walter Jones (NC) and Don Young (AK) cosponsored a bill, H.R. 330 or the Marine Access and State Transparency (MAST) Act, which would prevent any President from unilaterally designating marine monuments without the approval of Congress and the legislature of each state within 100 nautical miles of the proposed monument. [iii]Additionally, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has unanimously agreed that the New England Corals Amendment should be allowed to continue without Presidential declaration of a marine monument; but also that if the designation were to go forward, such a monument should be limited to waters deeper than 900 meters, thereby protecting important fishing grounds. [iv]Unfortunately, disregard for the facts and impacts on New England fishing communities have led to another recent proposal for New England Marine Monument designation through the elected officials of Connecticut. This proposal would also severely damage New England fisheries.[v]
Environmental claims that these monument proposal areas are “pristine” , “untouched” and in need of protection do not acknowledge the fact that extremely productive fisheries have been operating within them for decades. They also do not acknowledge that the marine life, including deep sea corals, that may live there still exist because we do not fish where they are. The corals which may exist inside a canyon are protected by virtue of their habitat. As our vessels are trawl vessels, I will approach the environmental misinformation from that standpoint.
According to the National Resources Defense Council webpage, “one pass of a weighted trawl net scraping along a canyon wall can destroy corals”. The problem with this statement is that trawls cannot operate on canyon walls. In order to maintain the proper geometry necessary for a trawl to work, it cannot be towed sideways or horizontally on a canyon wall. Furthermore, nets are made of twine which, even if it could somehow be towed horizontally, would be shredded by the rocky canyon walls and the coral itself, costing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Clearly, no fisherman would risk tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to his gear. Trawls only operate on the top of the edges of canyons, where the terrain is flatter and smooth. These areas are not coral habitat but have been included in the proposed monument designations, apparently for no other reason than to prohibit fishing in the area.
According to National Geographic, the “canyons of Georges Bank” needing “protection” contain “rock [that is] so excavated out by all the living creatures that scientists call them ‘pueblo communities’”.[vi] It is true that some of the canyons in question, specifically Oceanographer and Lydonia Canyons, are already closed to mobile bottom tending gear through the Tilefish Gear Restricted Areas (GRAs) due to their “pueblo habitat”.[vii] However, this habitat is not rock, which is the preferred habitat of corals; it is clay. “The complex of burrows in clay outcrops along the slopes and walls of submarine canyons, and elsewhere on the outer continental shelf, has been called ‘pueblo’ habitat because of its similarity to human structures in the southwestern United States”, according to the Tilefish Fishery Management Plan. [viii] Furthermore, the clay pueblo habitat has already been protected by the GRAs through fishery management, so the areas are not in need of protection.
Many environmental organizations such as Conservation Law Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and National Geographic are claiming that the canyons are “increasingly vulnerable to overfishing”, “under growing threat of destruction from overfishing”, and “if the fishing threat isn’t permanently curtailed by the monument designation it could decimate the wildlife” such as “squid, herring…and other species”. [ix]This is an outright lie. The Magnuson Steven Act of 2007, which governs federal fisheries, mandates that fishery management plans “shall…prevent overfishing”. Threats of overfishing are ever decreasing, not increasing. Additionally, claims that the “wildlife population densities around these areas ‘are like a time machine to the New England of 400 years ago’…before the onset of overfishing” [x] contradict themselves in the sense that not only do healthy fisheries currently exist in the area , but neither are they overfished.
The primary trawl fisheries occurring in the monument proposals are squid, mackerel, butterfish, and whiting, and since herring is specified by the environmental community I will address that species also. All of these fisheries are managed and regulated by the Magnuson Act, and none are overfished.[xi] In fact, squid populations are “booming” in New England according to a recent article by Science Magazine,[xii] and squid and butterfish are projected to be “winners” in predicted climate change in the region.[xiii] Butterfish numbers are nearly twice the scientifically targeted biomass,[xiv] and mackerel is scheduled to undergo an assessment this year. The herring stock is at its highest levels ever recorded, and fishing mortality rates are at their lowest levels since 1965.[xv] Both the northern and southern whiting stocks are healthy and experiencing strong recruitment. [xvi] Allegations of overfishing are clearly fabricated.
These areas are extremely productive and support countless fishery related jobs, in addition to a consistent supply of healthy seafood for the U.S. public. Federal fishing effort is catalogued according to catch by statistical area. From 2005-2014 the 10 year average annual harvest of squid (calamari), mackerel, butterfish, herring and whiting from the statistical areas proposed for monument designation was over 8.4 million lbs., supporting individual vessels, crews, dockside facilities and processors, restaurants and tackle shops, cold storage facilities, fishing gear and fuel businesses, and the list could go on. In addition to these species, other fisheries that occur in the areas include lobster, Jonah crab and red crab. Each of these fisheries supports their own economic activity and families.
Unilateral executive designation of marine monuments would devastate these fisheries and the Americans that rely on them. Contrary to general public knowledge, fishing vessels do not have access to the whole ocean and cannot just “relocate” their activity. The fishing industry is restricted by many area closures, gear restricted areas, seasonal quotas, area quotas, and other measures that limit where they can go, when they can go there, and what they can catch at that time, besides the fact that certain fish live in certain areas. Access to the area proposed for a marine monument is critical to the survival of these fisheries.
Although it will be the Administration that ultimately makes the decision with regards to whether or not a monument will be designated and where it may be, it has been clear from the beginning that this process has been initiated and propagated by the environmental community through a continual flow of misinformation. This is unacceptable. It is deceptive to the American public, Administration and lawmakers, and completely disregards the potential loss of healthy seafood, jobs, families, personal investments and life savings that fishermen have tied up in their vessels, and the communities that rely on them. Such environmental organizations should not be allowed to drive any governmental process.