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Conservationists Push For A National Undersea Monument


The underwater ravines off Cape Cod are known for their lobster and cod. They also contain lush kelp forests and rare deep-sea corals. Environmentalists want President Obama to declare the area as a marine national monument. Unlike marine sanctuaries, monuments can be designated simply by presidential proclamation. Fishermen are saying not so fast. Heather Goldstone of member station WCAI reports.

HEATHER GOLDSTONE, BYLINE: Imagine you're 80 miles off the coast of Cape Ann, Mass. You strap on a scuba tank and jump in. It's something Jon Witman of Brown University has done countless times.

JON WITMAN: The first thing you see is what looks like a false bottom of the sea floor, but it's moving. It's the kelp canopy.

GOLDSTONE: This is Cashes Ledge. And Witman says diving it is like parachuting into a jungle.

WITMAN: It's a fragile, one-of-a-kind ecosystem that supports truly an incredible diversity of marine life from sponges to whales.

GOLDSTONE: A hundred miles to the south is a dramatic landscape so remote that even researchers, like Tim Shank, have only seen it as video from remote-controlled robots. Seamounts and canyons, some deeper than the Grand Canyon, their steep walls dotted with rare and colorful corals.

TIM SHANK: There are sea stars that live on them, shrimp that live on them, brittle stars, snails, all kinds of crabs. So it's, you know, it's a little reef system unto itself.

GOLDSTONE: Fishing is currently restricted on Cashes Ledge and fishery managers are considering measures for New England's undersea canyons. But Witman says it's not enough. These unique fragile places need to be permanently and absolutely off-limits to commercial activity.

WITMAN: We're really moving towards an industrialized ocean and for the sake of our own species, we have to stop that.

GOLDSTONE: Environmentalists are pushing President Obama to declare a marine national monument covering Cashes Ledge, the canyons and everything in between - 6,000 square miles in all. Shank, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, agrees that some protection is needed. But he's not convinced a monument is the way to go.

SHANK: Maybe I'm too much of a nerd scientist. I just want to see us be informed about what we're doing.

GOLDSTONE: By law, fishery managers are required to involve scientists, fishermen and the public in crafting regulations. Fishermen don't always like the result, but they have a say, and decisions can usually be revisited. The president, on the other hand, can declare a monument and permanently shut down fishing without any public process at all. Steve Welch of Scituate, Mass., helped shape the current rules for Cashes Ledge. Standing outside a recent fishery management meeting, he says the president shouldn't have that power.

STEVE WELCH: This is not what America's about. We might as well just have a dictator in the White House.

GOLDSTONE: Fishermen from 26 states have signed a petition opposing a presidential proclamation. And the House is considering a bill that would require state and congressional approval for ocean monuments. But Priscilla Brooks of the Conservation Law Foundation says our national parks are living proof that executive action is warranted.

PRISCILLA BROOKS: We learned a century ago that giving the president the authority to protect special areas has been a huge boon for the public.

GOLDSTONE: New England's undersea canyons will never be a tourist attraction like the Grand Canyon, but monument supporters say more areas need to be set aside to ensure a healthy sustainable ocean. And ultimately, that's what both sides are after. For NPR News, I'm Heather Goldstone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Heather Goldstone
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