Scorning Extinction Crisis, Trump To Open Protected Marine Site To Commercial Fishing

During a visit to Maine on Friday, President Donald Trump is expected to open a sweeping protected site off the East Coast to commercial fishing ― a move that goes against the very purpose of designating a marine monument.

Established by the Obama administration in 2016, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument encompasses more than 4,900 square miles off the East Coast and is home to ancient seafloor canyons and seamounts, endangered whales, deep ocean corals and numerous migratory fish species. Rolling back the restrictions on that area, the liberal Center for American Progress estimated, would eliminate nearly 85% of ocean protections along the United States outside the remote western Pacific.

The news comes amid a rapidly worsening global extinction crisis and only days after Trump proclaimed June as National Oceans Month. At the time, he called on Americans to “reflect on the value and importance of oceans not only to our security, environment, and economy but also as a source of recreation and enjoyment.” 

Trump is expected to make his new announcement during a roundtable Friday afternoon with representatives of the commercial fishing industry. Ahead of the visit, a White House official told HuffPost that discussion “is yet another example of President Trump’s commitment to getting our economy roaring once again.” The official did not respond to questions about possible changes to the monument. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has engaged in a frenzy of environmental rollbacks that it says are meant to jumpstart the struggling U.S. economy. But the administration has had its eyes on Northeast Canyons and Seamounts and other marine protected sites since Trump took office, part of its broader review of more than two dozen national monument designations and expansions made under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

In a draft report to the White House in August 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that Trump greenlight commercial fishing in three marine monuments: Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. But his final report, submitted later that year, made no mention of opening up commercial fishing. The plan resurfaced last summer in an internal document outlining the Commerce Department’s “Strategic Priorities for 2018,” which included advancing maritime commerce and reducing America’s seafood trade deficit. One of the ways the agency intended to boost seafood production, the document noted, is by approving “permit fishing in marine monuments” within 90 days. 

Last month, Trump directed the Commerce Department to start drafting new rules to open federal waters to industrial fish-farming operations. The executive order infuriated commercial fishers and environmentalists, who warned that finfish aquaculture could increase pollution at a moment when oceans are already under extreme stress and flood the market with farmed fish, making it impossible for boat captains to eke out a living. 

Experts say opening the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument to fishing will do little to improve the lot of fishermen, whose industry has contracted over the past few decades as the Gulf of Maine ― which stretches 36,000 square miles from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia, Canada ― is warming faster than almost any other body of water on Earth. At an average increase of 0.11 degrees Fahrenheit per year over the past three decades, Gulf of Maine temperatures are surging more rapidly than those in 99% of global oceans. 

So-called climate shocks ― significant deviations from average temperatures ― sent fishing jobs in New England’s coastal counties plummeting 16% from 1996 to 2017, according to a peer-reviewed University of Delaware study published in December. Meanwhile, the New England fishery for Northern shrimp has remained closed for seven consecutive years and record lobster hauls over the past decade in Maine now look set to decline, according to two studies published last year. 

“What rolling back the monument does is it puts a really vulnerable and ancient ocean ecosystem at risk for minimum economic benefit, at the cost of distracting from the real problem facing Maine’s fisheries and U.S. fisheries as a whole, which is climate change,” said Miriam Goldstein, the director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress.

Scientists warn that the simultaneous climate and biodiversity crises pose an existential threat to support systems upon which humans rely, and there are growing calls for world governments to better safeguard intact ecosystems. A United Nations draft biodiversity plan released earlier this year calls for protecting 30% of all lands and oceans by 2030, with at least 10% put under “strict protection.” 

Policy ideas to implement those goals are being developed. Last year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) vowed to implement a “Blue New Deal” as part of her presidential campaign. The plan, now championed by groups drafting climate policies for the Democratic Party, includes proposals to conserve more open ocean and ramp up prosecutions of polluters, particularly agribusiness giants whose waste runoff is a major source of toxic algae-fueling nitrogen.

Reuters contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.



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