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Ocean preserves ‘free from human influence’ necessary for research, recovery

An old adage warns that we often don’t appreciate something until after it is gone. President Barack Obama spared New England that fate when he designated an area of underwater mountains and canyons as a marine national monument. The area, about 150 miles off Cape Cod, is the first marine monument on the East Coast.

With a presidential proclamation Thursday morning, Obama created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which covers 5,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean. The designation will make the area off-limits to commercial fishing and oil and gas drilling. Fishing groups decried the monument designation, but few boats fish in the area, where fishing was already restricted, and lobstermen and crab harvesters have seven years to stop working within the monument.

The proclamation came less than a month after the president accepted a gift of land from Roxanne Quimby and her family to create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument between Patten and Baxter State Park.

While monuments and national parks on land are mostly about preserving important landscapes that people will visit, marine monuments are about preservation and scientific research. With many fish stocks at low numbers, despite increasing fishing restrictions, and oceans rapidly warming, understanding what is happening underwater is more important than ever, so the president’s action is timely.

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The protected area contains three underwater canyons, one of them deeper than the Grand Canyon, and four underwater mountains that were volcanoes. It is home to diverse wildlife, including corals not found anywhere else. Scientists recently discovered that Atlantic puffins use the area as a wintering area.

The combination of deep sea and tall mountains provides a breeding and nursing ground for an array of sea life, including lobsters. As the oceans warm — the nearby Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans — research in the monument area can play an important role in crafting policies to address climate change and overfishing.

The same rationale applies to a much smaller area in the Gulf of Maine that conservation groups also are pressing Obama to protect. That area — Cashes Ledge — is one of the few places left where cod are plentiful. The scientific value of preserving Cashes Ledge is indisputable.

Scientists who have studied it regard Cashes Ledge as an area that shows how the entire Gulf of Maine once functioned — as an ecosystem with groundfish such as the Atlantic cod as the primary predators, nutrient-rich waters because of the confluence of currents along the underwater ridge, the deepest kelp forest in the gulf and a level of biodiversity that’s largely unmatched. Since it shows how the Gulf of Maine once functioned, Cashes Ledge can show how the gulf will respond to environmental threats such as climate change.

“We need at least a few areas in the marine environment that are relatively free from human influence, where we can see what will grow on the bottom, what marine species will congregate, how big species will get, what biomass it can support, and many other things,” Daniel Hildreth, the chairman of the board of Diversified Communications, wrote in a July letter in support of ocean preservation published in National Fisherman, an industry magazine. The company publishes the magazine and hosts marine and seafood expos.

“As we continue to rebuild fish stocks to their true potential in the Gulf of Maine and its rivers, we need at least a few areas dedicated to preserving marine life in all its forms,” he added.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument is an important piece of that preservation. So, too, is protecting Cashes Ledges with a similar designation.


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