Baker questions Obama step toward marine monuments

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BOSTON – Raising concerns about potential impacts on commercial fisheries, Gov. Charlie Baker is questioning President Barack Obama’s step toward designating two areas off the Massachusetts coast as national marine monuments.

The White House and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have signaled an intention to designate at least two offshore areas – Cashes Ledge and New England Canyons and Seamounts — as protected national marine monuments. In 2009, Obama issued a presidential proclamation establishing three Pacific Marine National Monuments, but there are currently no such protected areas in the Atlantic Ocean.

In a letter Wednesday, Baker writes that his administration has been unable to determine how the president identified and selected those areas for protection, and that gathering public input about it fell “far short of any meaningful stakeholder process.” Baker, a Republican, said he believed there had only been one public meeting, which was held in Providence, R.I.

The Conservation Law Foundation, or CLF, in Boston and partners like the National Geographic Society and Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, and the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York have sought protections for the Cashes Ledge Closed Area in the Gulf of Maine and the New England Canyons and Seamounts off Cape Cod – areas the foundation describes as “deep sea treasures.”

Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range in the Gulf of Maine about 80 miles from the tip of Cape Ann, CLF said, and is used by scientists as an underwater laboratory because “many scientists believe that Cashes Ledge represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem.”

The New England Canyons and Seamounts are located about 150 miles off the coast of southern New England, “where the continental shelf drops off into the ocean abyss,” according to CLF, which says the canyons “plunge thousands of feet deep, some deeper than the Grand Canyon, and the seamounts rise as high as 7,000 feet above the seafloor, higher than any mountain east of the Rockies.”

Though he does not express his outright opposition to the marine monument designations, Baker said they would have a negative impact on the state’s recreational and commercial fishing industry, and would undermine ongoing work by the New England Fishery Management Council to expand environmental protections for Cashes Ledge, and establish protections for the canyons and seamounts.

“Their work, plans, and processes are underway, and will jeopardize already strained relationships with important stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishermen,” Baker wrote to Obama. “The proposed National Marine Monument designation is inconsistent with and contrary to the process and principles of the ongoing regional ocean planning initiative.”

The seafood industry has also expressed concern over the designation, citing the fact that Cashes Ledge has been closed to all commercial fishing except state-managed lobstering for more than a decade.

“The current proposal for a national monument on Cashes Ledge is a solution in search of a problem,” Saving Seafood, a Washington-based industry organization, said in a statement. “It fixes a process that isn’t broken. It seeks an outcome that is already in effect. And it removes the public from the management of public resources.”

Jon Williams, president of New Bedford’s Atlantic Red Crab Co., said years and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to ensure that the fishing practices used do not harm the areas fished, including some of those under consideration for the monument designation.

“These efforts to both understand and minimize our impact on the environment have been so successful that after 40 years of red crab fishing, our fishing grounds are described as ‘pristine’ by the same environmental groups who seek the monument designation,” Williams wrote Wednesday in an op-ed for The Hill, a news publication in Washington. “If these habitats are still ‘pristine’ after 40 years of fishing, how can a serious argument be made that the area is in imminent danger and in need of immediate, unilateral protection by presidential fiat?”

Massachusetts’ two U.S. senators and the three representatives whose districts include the bulk of the state’s coastline have sent a separate letter to Obama asking him to allow for a more comprehensive public input process before making a final determination.

“While you have clear authority under the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments, we ask that you engage stakeholders further before making a final decision … by expanding your stakeholder engagement efforts to include additional opportunities for our Massachusetts constituents to express their views on the potential designations in the context of ongoing conservation efforts,” Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Reps. Stephen Lynch, William Keating and Seth Moulton wrote last month. All are Democrats.

Written by Colin A. Young