President Trump vowed Friday to open the nation’s only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean to commercial fishing, saying he was giving Maine back part of its history and the fishermen their industry.
He signed a proclamation declaring the opening after attending a roundtable discussion with commercial fishermen in Bangor, Maine, that included a wide-ranging conversation about unwanted regulations and tariffs on the seafood trade.
“We’re opening it today,” Trump said. To the fishermen, he added: “We’re gonna solve your fishing problem....Basically, they took away your livelihood. It’s ridiculous.”
Trump’s move to open fishing in the Northeastern Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument will surely open a new front in the ongoing legal battle over the limits of presidential powers regarding national monuments. Native American tribes and environmental groups are already challenging administration efforts to reduce the size of two monuments in Utah.
In this case, as some who attended the Maine meeting pointed out, the president is not seeking to change the marine monument’s boundaries. Environmental groups nonetheless immediately vowed to sue the Trump administration.
“A significant change to the monument or its protections—such as allowing commercial fishing—must be done by Congress, not by the president,” Brad Sewell, senior director of Oceans for the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. “The Antiquities Act gives the president power to protect special areas for future generations, not the opposite power, to abolish those protections.”
He added: “We are prepared to sue the Trump administration.”
Enric Sala, a marine biologist and founder of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas program, who helped to create marine monuments in the Pacific and elsewhere, says leaving the boundaries intact makes little difference if commercial fishing is allowed.
“National monuments, by law, are to preserve the integrity of America’s natural and historical sites,” he says. “We need pristine areas set aside so that we can see nature as it was before we overexploited it, and understand the true impact of fishing. If commercial fishing were allowed in a monument, it would become just a name on a map, and no different than any other place in the ocean.”
Sportfishing already allowed
The Seamount marine monument, created by President Obama in 2016, sprawls over nearly 5,000 square miles of the Atlantic, about 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. It protects a collection of underwater canyons and mountains, including four extinct volcanoes, and is home to sea turtles, endangered whales, and deep-sea, cold-water corals.
The monument is open to sportfishing, but commercial fishing is prohibited, with the exception of the red crab and lobster fisheries. Those fisheries have been allowed to continue for a seven-year transition period that ends in 2023.
Administration lawyers are already defending in federal court what they see as the president’s authority to change a national monument. That case concerns Trump’s 2017 decision to drastically shrink two large national monuments in Utah created by President Obama, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
The Seamounts monument, for its part, is also already embroiled in a suit in federal court. In 2017, five groups, including two lobster and three commercial fishing associations, sued the federal government, arguing that Obama exceeded his authority and created the monument illegally.
The case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2018. Last December, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that none of the fishing associations’ arguments had merit. The fisheries groups have been granted an extension to file an appeal to the Supreme Court because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fishermen’s economic worries
Trump’s move to open the Seamounts monument to fishing comes at a time when commercial fishermen are seeking regulatory relief to help them through the economic crisis set off by the pandemic, which closed restaurants and hotels, major purchasers of fish. On May 7, he announced a new initiative promoting economic growth of the American seafood industry. (Read more on that here.)
In response, Trump received a request by the Western Pacific Fishery Council (WESPAC) to open the four Pacific marine national monuments to commercial fishing. Last week, all eight regional fishing councils—quasi-governmental bodies that set fishing season schedules and annual catch limits—wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asking that all five marine monuments be opened to commercial fishing.
The May 29 letter said that “at a time when our nation’s fisheries are experiencing devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the councils believe “that immediate action to support American fisheries is urgently needed.” The fishery managers councils also reiterated their long-standing opposition to marine monuments that prohibit fishing: "Marine monument designations have the potential to be counterproductive to achieving fishery management goals.”
In their meeting with Trump in Maine, fishermen described a trade that is handed down from generation to generation and faces growing difficulties on multiple fronts. Their efforts to talk to the Obama administration about the hardships that fishing restrictions would create had fallen on deaf ears, they said. The monument was designated “in back rooms with special interests,” said Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
Several other fishermen said they see the creation of Seamounts as the first of more areas that will be closed to them.
“We really worry about the precedent this sets,” said Porter. “You can close large areas of the ocean and (that) puts all of us in smaller and smaller boxes.”
After listening to and agreeing with the fishermen, Trump asked the group what it needed from him. When he was told the signed proclamation would do the trick, he observed: “You’re so lucky I’m president.”