Ever since President Trump announced he would review his predecessor’s creation of national monuments, Mainers have been focused on the future of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in northern Maine.

But a second New England monument also fell under the review conducted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, one that scientists and conservationists say is essential for understanding the rapid changes going on in the Gulf of Maine and northeast Atlantic.

Zinke has recommended that the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – a 4,913-square-mile area of underwater canyons, thousand-year-old coral forests, and volcanic mountains on and beyond the southern edge of Georges Bank at the mouth of the Gulf of Maine – be opened to commercial fishing, a move proponents say would defeat its purpose.

“With the removal of fishing restrictions, a lot of the benefits of having this undisturbed area go away,” said Peter Auster, senior research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, who has explored and studied the area with submarines and remotely operated vehicles. “Undisturbed, the animals in these areas should be able to feed more, grow larger and become more fecund, potentially contributing more to the success of fisheries, even if they’re ultimately captured outside the area.”

The monument protects undersea canyons, including one deeper than the Grand Canyon, and a group of seamounts taller than Mount Washington, that lie in an area that is not intensively fished. The area is frequented by fin, sei and sperm whales, and is home to groves of fragile, 9-foot-tall coldwater corals. It’s the only permanently protected reserve in the federal Atlantic waters and would be the largest entanglement-free area for marine mammals on the Eastern Seaboard.

“The idea of opening up the monument to commercial fishing defeats the purpose of having it,” said Zack Klyver, senior naturalist with the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. “You need a place where stresses are removed to really understand what the true impacts of things like climate change and ocean acidification are.”

Zinke’s recommendation, which was leaked to The Washington Post and published on Sept. 17, was applauded by seafood interests, particularly in southern New England, who had opposed President Barack Obama’s designation of the monument in 2016. Eric Reid of Rhode Island-based Seafreeze Ltd., a major supplier of frozen-at-sea seafood that operates a fleet of fishing vessels, said the monument was designated after “behind-closed-door campaigns led by large, multinational, environmental lobbying firms despite vocal opposition from local and federal officials, fisheries managers and the fishing industry.” Zinke’s recommendations, he said, “make us hopeful that we can recover the areas we have fished sustainably for decades.”

The heads of eight of the nation’s fisheries management councils – the industry-led bodies that implement fisheries regulations in federal waters – were already on record against the commercial fishing restrictions. In a May 16 letter to Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, they said the bans were potentially counterproductive because they “disrupted the ability of the Councils to manage fisheries throughout their range as required by (the federal fisheries act) and in an ecosystem-based manner.”

Five fishing industry associations – including the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association and the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance – have a pending suit against the federal government alleging presidents do not have the power to designate marine monuments because the Antiquities Act refers to “land” controlled by the federal government.

A chimaera, or rabbitfish, swims a couple of yards above the seafloor in Lydonia Canyon in the designated Gulf of Maine marine monument. Photo courtesy of NOAA (oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/backmatter/faqs.html)

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument doesn’t qualify because it’s submerged and is located more than 12 nautical miles from shore, inside the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone, but outside its territorial waters, said Jim Burling, vice president for litigation at the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California, which is representing the fishing groups.

Burling said it’s too early to tell whether Zinke’s recommendation will satisfy the groups’ concerns with the monument. “The proof will be in the pudding,” he said. “We talk about management changes today, but those could be changed back with the next administration. We think the time will have to come to determine the legality of these kinds of national monuments.”

Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental attorney who is watching the case closely, strongly disagrees. “Their arguments run against the phalanx of academic and legal opinion on the Act,” he said, adding that the federal government has controlled fishing activities in the area since 1976, and that other countries around the world have created marine reserves in their Exclusive Economic Zones.

“But the most distressing thing about the litigation are the preposterous claims of economic harm that have been made, particularly by the offshore lobster industry,” Shelley added. “There’s no evidence or data that suggest the impacts are going to be significant in any respect.”

Recreational fishing, bird and whale watching are allowed in the reserve, and lobster and red crab fishermen have seven years to move their gear out of the area.

An economic impact analysis prepared in July by the Washington-based environmental consultancy TBD Economics predicted lobster fishermen would face at most minor losses: between a net $85,000 annual loss and a $10,000 annual gain once potential spillover benefits of protected breeding populations within the monument were taken into account. The report said this represented about 0.015 percent of the fishery.

Red crab fishermen would face slightly greater net losses of between $34,000 and $188,000 a year, the study estimated.

A garden of deep-water corals grows in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the Gulf of Maine. Photo courtesy of NOAA (oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/backmatter/faqs.html)

Auster said scientists haven’t thoroughly evaluated the spillover effects of the monument, but that the most likely beneficiaries would be lobster, mackerel, squid and redfish stocks, as those species use the reserve in substantial numbers.

The monument was originally to include Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain ridge 80 miles east of Kittery, but that component was dropped in the face of opposition from fishermen and even the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Shelley said it was in Maine’s interest to have the seamounts and canyons area not be actively fished or lobstered on account of the rapid warming of the Gulf of Maine, which is expected to displace traditional commercial fish species and is making the seawater more acidic, compromising the ability of at least some shellfish to grow their shells.

“There needs to be at least one control area in the U.S. North Atlantic where there would be a reference site to help distinguish potential offshore impacts associated with climate change from those caused by fishing,” he said. “If lobsters suddenly started to crash, is it because of harvesters or because of temperatures? Having places like this could help us to rule out some things.”

But Paul Molyneaux, a fisheries development consultant from East Machias and author of “Doryman’s Reflection,” a personal account of the collapse of New England groundfishing, said some commercial fishing practices are compatible with the goals of the monument.

“It all depends on the scale and the gear,” he said. “Commercial fishing takes in destructive gear types but also people making a living with a rod and reel. Some of them are probably able to take place that are going to be consistent with a healthy marine ecosystem.”

Trump has been expected to decide whether to adopt Zinke’s recommendations for several weeks. A spokesman for the Department of the Interior did not respond to requests for comment.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

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