The Obama administration is no longer considering Cashes Ledge – a biodiversity hot spot in the Gulf of Maine – for national monument designation.
Officials from the White House Council on Environmental Quality conveyed that message Thursday to fishing industry regulators and representatives from Maine and Massachusetts during a meeting in Boston. Conservationists have sought monument status for years, but fishermen opposed the designation amid concerns about additional restrictions in an area already tightly managed by federal fisheries regulators.
Maggie Raymond, executive director of Associated Fisheries of Maine and one of the attendees of Thursday’s meeting, said members of her trade association were pleased to learn the news about Cashes Ledge. A White House spokesperson confirmed that “Cashes Ledge is not under consideration for a designation at this time.”
“It wasn’t clear what, exactly, was the purpose (of designation), what would be restricted there and if those restrictions could ever be changed,” Raymond said. “We prefer the process that we are familiar with,” Raymond said, referring to the oversight system provided by the New England Fishery Management Council.
About 80 miles east of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range that scientists say is a virtual ecological time machine because of the biodiversity still found there. The area is home to schools of oversize cod and pollock, drawn by the food and shelter offered by one of the world’s largest kelp forests. Other species that reside in or pass through Cashes Ledge include endangered North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales, as well as many types of sharks.
Commercial fishing already is restricted in Cashes Ledge, however, conservation groups have been urging the Obama administration to permanently protect the area through a national monument designation. Those groups indicated Friday that they were not giving up.
“The extensive science on Cashes Ledge demonstrates how ecologically diverse and abundant the area is,” Peter Shelley, senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement. “Many groups and people throughout Maine, New England and nationally support permanent protection and will continue to speak up for this important place. New England’s elected officials have a responsibility to listen to all their constituents, and we are urging people to tell their elected officials and the White House that Cashes Ledge needs protection, along with the canyons and seamounts, before they are damaged further.”
The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president the ability to quickly protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” without congressional approval. President George W. Bush and President Obama used the law to designate or expand marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean, and the Obama administration has been actively seeking candidates for the first marine monument in the Atlantic.
Commercial fishing groups, led by groundfishermen, have opposed the Cashes Ledge designation because they feared it could result in permanent, blanket restrictions.
Terry Alexander, a Harpswell fisherman who serves on the New England Fishery Management Council, said the White House made “a good decision.” Alexander pointed out that the council, which manages commercial fisheries from Maine to Connecticut, voted in April 2015 to maintain habitat protections around Cashes Ledge that limit commercial fishing for groundfish, such as cod, as well as use of bottom-scouring fishing gear.
“The council has worked hard to protect Cashes Ledge through this last habitat amendment,” Alexander said. “It’s protected now so I didn’t see any sense” in a monument designation.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources also praised the decision. Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs at DMR, currently serves as chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council.
“We are pleased with the announcement that Cashes Ledge is not under consideration, but we remain concerned about other areas under consideration and are following this issue closely,” the DMR said in a statement.
Representatives from the White House Council on Environmental Quality told attendees of Thursday’s meeting that the Obama administration is still considering monument status for the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area located about 150 miles off the coast of Massachusetts.
Sean Mahoney, executive director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, said more than 500 scientists have spoken in support of designating Cashes Ledge or the Canyons and Seamounts area – or both – as national monuments. Mahoney was also less convinced that Cashes Ledge was off the table entirely, pointing out that a White House official only said the underwater mountain range was “not under consideration for a designation at this time.”
“From our perspective, they are not considering it at this moment, but there are still 10 months left in this administration,” Mahoney said. “So we are going to continue to focus on building support for permanent protection of this incredibly unique and important marine area.”