Overturning one of his predecessor’s more far-reaching environmental measures in New England, President Trump on Friday signed a proclamation allowing commercial fishing in nearly 5,000 square miles of protected waters off Cape Cod.
The decision undermines one of the main goals of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a controversial preserve about 130 miles southeast of Provincetown that President Barack Obama designated in his final year in office. It was the first marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Connecticut-sized area features a range of unique coral, rare fish, endangered marine mammals, and sea turtles. It contains three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and four underwater mountains.
Fishing groups had lobbied for the change, saying the restrictions had cost the industry millions.
“This action was deeply unfair to Maine lobstermen,” Trump said shortly before signing the proclamation during a meeting with commercial fishermen in Maine. “You’ve been treated very badly. They’ve regulated you out of business.”
Then he added: “You better remember your president.”
The move was condemned by environmental groups throughout the region, many of which had spent years pushing for the protections.
“Once again, the president is making cynical use of the national crises he has inflamed to pander to the very few New Englanders who may still have faith in his leadership,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, which plans to file a lawsuit challenging Trump’s move. “We call on the New England delegation and the public to fight this attack on our ocean and our future by all means available.”
The protected area was one of 10 national monuments that former Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke in 2017 recommended that Trump either scale back or alter their management.
Obama established the marine monument using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, a move critics said circumvented federal law established in the 1970s to regulate fisheries.
“President Obama swept aside our public, science-based fishery management process with the stroke of a pen,” said Bob Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a Washington-based group that represents commercial fishermen. “That was a mistake, and whatever anyone thinks about President Trump is irrelevant. Today, he fixed that mistake.”
He and others in the fishing industry called Trump’s decision overdue.
“This is very welcome news,” said Tim Malley, a vessel manager for Blue Harvest Fisheries in New Bedford.
Before the ban, Malley estimated that as many as 80 boats had regularly fished the area for lobster, crab, scallops, swordfish, and tuna. The area had constituted as much as 20 percent of his company’s fishing grounds, he said.
“It was really a blow to us when Obama did this,” said Malley, who expected fishing would resume in the area immediately. “This was just correcting a bad decision.”
Environmental groups, however, said Trump’s move would harm fisheries because the monument protected a range of species, allowing their populations to thrive.
“We know that strong protections of marine and terrestrial environments are needed if we are to nurture a vibrant and sustainable planet for future generations,” said Vikki N. Spruill, president of the New England Aquarium, who called Trump’s decision “irresponsible and shortsighted.”
The monument protects an estimated 54 species of deep-sea coral and hundreds of marine species, including endangered North Atlantic right whales and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.
Gib Brogan, senior campaign manager at Oceana, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, called Trump’s decision “another nail in the coffin for both productive fisheries and healthy oceans in New England.”
“Protecting deep-sea waters is a win-win for both fishermen and healthy oceans, as healthy oceans from the seafloor to the surface will help sustain robust fisheries for years to come,” he said. “This assault on our oceans joins the administration’s almost daily actions to dismantle environmental protections for our nation’s air, water, oceans, historic treasures, and wildlife — and to shut down public participation in decisions by our federal government.”