Fishermen considering legal steps to alter marine monument in Northeast US

Published on
September 21, 2016

Fishing organizations, including those representing lobster fishermen in the Northeast United States, have expressed outrage over U.S. President Barack Obama’s designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument on 15 September.

Several groups representing the fishing and seafood industries are investigating the possibility of taking legal action in the hopes of altering the monument’s boundaries or challenging the president’s authority to declare national monuments through executive order under the legal umbrella of the Antiquities Act.

“We’re looking forward to working with Massachusetts’ congressional delegation, and also meeting with the governor next week to get continued support to challenge the monument, even to the point of getting the attorney general’s office to look at the legality of the executive order, Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts’ Lobstermen’s Association said. “My understanding is that no presidential executive order has been overturned, but it has been amended.”

Casoni said that about 100 members of her association fish in the area designated for the monument, with many hundreds more fishing there from other parts of the U.S. While the monument’s designation allows lobster and crab fishing to continue in the monument’s area for seven more years before the fishery is closed off, Casoni said the loss of a “highly valuable area” will be another harsh blow for New England fishermen.

“We’re not giving up this fight,” she said.

No estimate of the economic impact of the monument designation on the fishing industry is publicly available, but according to estimates provided by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, lobster and Jonah crab revenue from southern New England – the area where the monument is located – is estimated to be around USD 38 million (EUR 34 million) per year. John Williams, president and owner of the New Bedford, Massachusetts-based Atlantic Red Crab Company, said the current boundaries of the monument represent about 20 percent of the area his company fishes in New England.

“The scary thing is, nobody knows the unintended consequences of this,” Williams said.

Moving his fishing operations outside the monument’s boundaries won’t be easy, he said, because other fishermen are likely already be fishing where he would want to go. Adding to Williams’ frustration is his belief that the region’s lobster and crab fishermen had been working effectively with regulators.

“Our fishery has been the poster-child for sustainability,” Williams said. “There was no local input in this decision. It was last-minute deal done behind closed doors. Of course, fishermen always complain about the process, but we’ve never seen anything like this. We weren’t even allowed to be in the room when the decisions were being made. In days gone by, at least we were allowed to sit at the table.”

Grant Moore, president of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, criticized Obama’s unilateral decision on the monument. The president could have worked through the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Marine Sanctuaries Act or Marine Protected Area Executive Order instead of using the Antiquities Act, Moore said.

“If any of those methods had been used, the best available science would have been the required metric; the public would have been allowed multiple opportunities to comment; and impacts to resources, fisheries, and economies would have been considered,” Moore said. “There is little place for these fishermen to go that will maintain the productivity that they have worked so hard to achieve, while avoiding gear conflict, bycatch, and protected resources. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama has put fishermen and their crews out of work and harmed the shoreside businesses that rely on the fishing economy.”

The Seafood Harvesters of America, an industry group, also condemned the monument designation for damaging the existing regulatory process by eroding hard-earned trust forged in recent years between regulators and fishermen.

“The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument designation takes fishermen off the water across vast stretches of traditional fishing grounds unnecessarily, without due consideration and collaboration,” it said in a statement. “It is a sad day when the creative potential of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is set aside in a unilateral fashion through executive action in favor of a declaration that threatens severe unintended consequences – not just for New England fishermen but for the foundational integrity of the regional fishery management council process and our nation’s premier fisheries law.”

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