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Obama designates the first-ever marine monument off the East Coast, in New England

Here's what you need to know about the national marine monument that President Obama designated on Sept. 15. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

President Obama declared the first fully protected area in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean on Thursday, designating 4,913 square miles off the New England coastline as a new marine national monument.

Obama’s previous marine conservation declarations have focused on some of the most remote waters under U.S. jurisdiction, including last month’s expansion of a massive protected area in Hawaii. But the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is more accessible, lying 130 miles off the southeast coast of Cape Cod.

“There are fabulous places out in the Pacific. But they’re also incredibly valuable and vulnerable places off the continental U.S.,” said Sarah Chasis, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s oceans program.

Obama will formally announce the designation Thursday when he addresses the Our Ocean conference, a global gathering his administration initiated two years ago. A senior administration official, who asked for anonymity in advance of the announcement, said the goal was to meet “the critical conservation needs that science establishes in this area while minimizing the impact on fisheries.”

The area along the continental shelf is home to many species of deep-sea coral, sharks, sea turtles, seabirds and deep-diving marine mammals, such as beaked whales and sperm whales. It boasts massive undersea canyons, as well as seamounts, towering underwater peaks that are higher than any mountains east of the Rockies, rising as much as 7,700 feet from the ocean floor.

In grand-gesture stage of his presidency, Obama turns to the sea

America controls more of the ocean than any other nation on earth: its exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, accounts for 55 percent of total U.S. acreage if federal lands and waters are combined. Globally, only 2.3 percent of the sea is strongly protected, but Obama has increased the amount of federal waters under strong protection from 6 percent to 25.5 percent.

Several regional fishing associations lobbied against the creation of a new monument, on the grounds that the federal government could reconcile environmental protections and ongoing fishing operations by regulating activities there under an existing fisheries management law.

Trawlers as well as offshore lobster and crab boat operators currently catch a range of species near the underwater canyons, including squid, mackerel, butterfish, lobster and Atlantic red crab. According to industry estimates, these fisheries are worth more than $50 million in total.

In an effort to lessen the economic impact, the administration will give lobster and red crab operators seven years to exit the area. Recreational fishing can continue around the three deep-sea canyons and four seamounts that are now protected, but seabed mining and any other extractive activities are banned.

Administration officials estimated there were six lobster boats operating in the area that will be protected, along with 20 other fishing vessels that move in and out of the area.

“The only user group that’s going to be negatively affected by this proposal is the fishing industry, period,” said David Borden, executive director of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, noting that the new protections will not affect oil tankers moving through the area or telecommunications cables lying on the seabed.

President Obama announces the designation of a U.S. marine monument off the coast of New England. (Video: Reuters)

Borden noted that one of the most affected sectors, the red crab fishery, has been certified as sustainably managed by the independent Marine Stewardship Council.

“The environmentalists consistently claim these are pristine areas, despite that there’s been fishing there for 40 years,” he said, adding that industry officials had told the White House repeatedly they are open to new restrictions. “Just set the boundaries deep enough so the fishing can continue.”

Eric Reid, general manager at a fish processing plant in Point Judith, R.I., said the monument’s proponents failed to recognize it would have “localized economic damage” in areas such as Montauk, N.Y., southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

But several scientists said recent research indicates the kinds of sea life living at these depths are so vulnerable — both because of their reproductive cycle and the fact that they need large, hard structures on the sea floor in order to thrive — it is essential to guard against the unintentional consequences of large-scale fishing and other possible extraction activities such as seabed mining.

“Traps, trawls and dredges impact — knock down, remove, kill — structure forming animals, and these provide habitat for a diversity of animals,” said Peter Auster, a senior research scientist at Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium. “We no longer allow hunting for wolves or grizzly bears in parks because of their ecological role, and a similar construct applies here, We are looking at one place, protected in perpetuity, where we can find all of the rich suite of ecological interactions playing out in the ocean, unimpeded by direct human interventions.”

Auster, who has helped conduct research expeditions in the area, said the coral canyons and seamounts provide habitat for species that scientists are just beginning to document.

“We can still go to this place, right outside our back door, and still find things that don’t have names,” he said, adding that the protected area represents roughly 2 percent of federal waters off the East Coast. “That leaves 98 percent to be exploited by somebody else.”

Protests by fishing groups derailed the campaign to establish another marine national monument in New England, Cashes Ledge, which would have spanned 532 square miles. The White House announced earlier this year the president would no longer consider using his executive authority after local officials as well as some congressional Democrats, including Sen. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), raised questions about it.

The monument Obama will declare is based on a map drafted by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), but it is 20 percent smaller. Connecticut has a more modest fishing fleet than other neighboring states.

Jane Lubchenco, who headed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during Obama’s first term, said in an interview the president deserves credit for dramatically expanding protections for federal waters. But she emphasized that it was important to make sure those safeguards applied to a range of environments.

“There are many different kinds of species and many different kinds of habitats that deserve protection, need protection,” Lubchenco said. “It used to be most of the ocean was a marine reserve, because we couldn’t access it. But with technology, we have eliminated that natural protection.”

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