President Biden’s decision to restore the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off Cape Cod got mixed reactions in Maine on Friday. 

But while the decision restores a prohibition on commercial fishing in the area, it is not expected to have much direct impact on the state’s industries because few, if any, Maine boats fish there. 

A garden of deep-water corals grows in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the Gulf of Maine. Photo courtesy NOAA

Last year, President Trump opened the 5,000-square-mile area that had first been designated as a national monument by President Obama in 2016. Some Maine commercial fishing groups applauded the decision, even though the area wasn’t frequented by Maine-based fishermen and women. The monument had been seen as a symbolic affront to the industry.

Conservation groups, on the other hand, opposed Trump’s decision and said Biden’s move to restore the monument is crucial to protecting an area of the ocean that has seen dramatic impacts from climate change. It’s the only national monument in Atlantic waters and is home to more than a thousand species of marine life, including 70 species of highly vulnerable corals.

Gov. Janet Mills criticized the Biden administration for taking such a major action without input from stakeholders, including the fishing industry.

“While I support environmental protection and conservation, this major action – which comes just mere weeks after advancing a right whale rule that that will seriously harm New England fishermen – is misguided and premature,” Mills said in a statement. “This decision was made without the appropriate engagement and consultation of stakeholders who deserve to have their voices heard. Fishermen are already reeling from heavy-handed Federal action and this further erodes faith that the Biden Administration will seek consensus from all stakeholders on important decisions impacting the marine environment.”

Last year, Mills criticized Trump for eliminating the monument.

“Rolling back a national monument 35 miles southeast of Cape Cod is not going to help the vast majority of Maine fishermen feed their families,” Mills said in a statement at the time.

Conservation groups praised Biden’s decision Friday.

“President Biden’s announcement is a welcome relief after Trump threw science out the window and slashed protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, which is active in Maine as well. “Restoring these commonsense safeguards will have an immeasurable impact on species that call the monument home and will result in a healthier ocean overall. With our oceans in peril from human impacts and the climate crisis, it’s time to protect more areas, not less.”

Shelley told the Press Herald in 2017 that it was in Maine’s interest to restrict fishing and lobstering because 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 shells.

Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine Advocacy Center, said Friday that there are almost no Maine-based fishermen active in the area designated as a national monument, and few from outside of Maine, for that matter. He also said that fisherman who had been using that area will still be able to for another couple years based on the language of the original 2016 monument designation.

Despite the minimal impact, fishing industry groups – including the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association and the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association – sued the Obama administration, contending that presidents do not have the power to designate marine monuments. No Maine-based organizations joined.

That suit was dismissed in federal court and struck down on appeal.

Following Trump’s decision to open the area, which he announced while visiting Maine, another lawsuit was filed by several plaintiffs, including by the Conservation Law Foundation and a longtime Bar Harbor-based whale watch guide and conservationist.

“As someone who spends many hours on the water, I know that providing refuge for the marine life we depend on for food and tourism will help our coastal communities in the long run,” R. Zack Klyver, co-founder and science director of Blue Planet Strategies, said in a statement. “I thank President Biden for restoring protections to this monument. Our children deserve to see what a healthy ocean looks like: seabirds, fish, and marine mammals in great abundance.

Those lawsuits are now moot, Mahoney said.

An economic impact analysis prepared in 2017 by the Washington-based environmental consultancy TBD Economics predicted lobster fishermen would face at most minor losses.

At one point prior to the 2016 designation, the national monument was 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.

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