PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Fishermen in New England say President Barack Obama needlessly dealt a big blow to their industry when he created the Atlantic Ocean’s first marine national monument and circumvented the existing process for protecting fisheries.
The new Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument consists of nearly 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains off the New England coast. The designation will close the area to commercial fishermen, who go there primarily for lobster, red crab, squid, whiting, butterfish, swordfish and tuna.
After Thursday’s announcement, fishermen pondered their next move: sue, lobby Congress to change the plan or relocate. It’s hard to move, they said, because other fishermen would likely already be fishing where they would want to go.
They said the designation process wasn’t transparent and the administration should have let the New England Fishery Management Council, which is charged with regulating the region’s fisheries, finish working on the coral protection measures it’s considering.
“There seems to be a huge misconception that there are limitless areas where displaced fishermen can go,” said Grant Moore, president of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association. “Basically with the stroke of a pen, President Obama put fishermen and their crews out of work and harmed all the shore-side businesses that support the fishing industry.”
The lobstermen’s association and other fishermen wanted the White House to allow fishing in depths of up to 450 meters (1,476 feet), so they could still go there but still protect deep-sea corals. Annually, about 800,000 pounds (362,877 kilograms) of lobster are caught near the canyons, according to the lobstermen’s association.
White House officials said the administration listened to industry’s concerns and made the monument smaller, with a seven-year transition period for the lobster and red crab industries.
Industry advocate Robert Vanasse said it’s clear the plan will lead to a decrease in supply and raises prices. It’s difficult to gauge the economic impact this early, added Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood.
A lobsterman in Newport, Rhode Island, wants Congress to act. One of Bill Palombo’s three boats catches lobster exclusively in the monument area. If nothing changes within seven years, Palombo said, “I guess you just go out of business.”
“What can you do?” he said. “That’s why we’re so upset.”
Palombo and others questioned why, if the area is considered pristine and fishermen have been going there for decades, can’t fishing continue?
The designation was widely praised by environmentalists as a way to sustain important species and reduce the toll of climate change.
Priscilla Brooks, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said it’s a “very small area” compared to what’s currently open to fishing. She said the White House struck a balance so there would be a “soft landing” for the industry, with seven years to phase out fishing.
“The fishing activities taking place in the monument aren’t compatible with the protection of vulnerable marine life,” she said.
Brad Sewell, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said fishing gear has been seen on top of coral and has entangled marine mammals. He worries these problems will worsen over time as fishing gear reaches deeper.
“You want to protect an area like this is when it’s relatively pristine,” he said. “The time to do it is now, not wait until the damage is done.”
Affected fishermen formed the Southern Georges Bank Fishing Coalition on Wednesday to oppose the monument. Coalition attorney Drew Minkiewicz said the president doesn’t have the authority to use the American Antiquities Act to declare a marine monument far offshore and Congress granted the right to protect these areas to the federally mandated fisheries councils that manage them.
“For people who live and work on the water, this is terrifying,” he said. “This is the government using eminent domain on your workplace.”
Minkiewicz wouldn’t say whether the coalition plans to sue.
The New England Fishery Management Council said it needs to reassess its management strategy given the new developments. Mary Beth Tooley, a council member from Maine, said the public process used by the council “is the way it should be done” and she’s disappointed it was circumvented.
Eric Reid, general manager of a seafood processing facility in Rhode Island, knows more than 20 boats that fish in the area covered by the monument.
“If they can’t get fish, I’m not in the processing business,” said Reid, of Seafreeze Shoreside Inc.
Reid said Obama, who leaves office in January, will deal with the intended and unintended consequences of his decision for the rest of his term, while fishermen have to live with them forever.