Despite the coronavirus pandemic, protests against police violence, and massive unemployment, President Trump somehow managed to leave his Washington bunker last Friday to gut protections for the Atlantic Ocean’s only marine monument — an extraordinary area filled with ancient deep-sea corals, whales, dolphins, and other fragile marine life.
Trump’s attack on the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was not motivated by any real concern for the struggles — many of which he caused — of fishermen and coastal communities that he claims to be helping. Rather, the president made it clear the rollback was just the latest chapter in his quest to undo everything that former president Barack Obama had done.
Still, while this president is the most anti-nature president in history, the controversy over the monument started before he was elected, born from a New England fisheries management system that has failed the fishermen and the fish for nearly 100 years, leading to a toxic cycle of overfishing, financial ruin, and distrust. That is why even a monument far offshore, with few users and no negative economic impacts, was viewed by some commercial fishermen as a personal attack.
This cannot continue. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the rest of the ocean. Cod have failed to recover after more than 20 years of rebuilding, lobsters are moving north to Canada, and sea-level rise threatens the entire region. If Trump truly cared about New England fishermen, he would provide immediate coronavirus-related economic relief and take action on climate — but at this point, expecting climate action from this president is futile.
However, as the country recovers and rebuilds from the economic collapse created by the coronavirus crisis, looking to the coasts and ocean for both economic and climate solutions provides enormous opportunity. There are already leaders showing the way, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, with her visionary Blue New Deal. The ocean does not need to be a source of conflict among a few but could instead be a source of opportunity for all.
First, the most important long-term investment that should be made for the health of the ocean and coastal communities is to reduce carbon emissions, though investments in renewable energy have been hindered by the Trump administration’s unfair double standards — at the potential cost of New England jobs. In the ocean context, this means continuing to work through the siting challenges of offshore wind, which is desperately needed to meet Massachusetts’ own carbon-reduction goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
Second, the federal government needs to adapt to the changes that are already here. Rolling back the monument won’t help fishermen catch shrimp that have fled warming waters to Canada, or get permits for black sea bass that have moved north from Virginia. Instead, the government should invest in long-term management solutions like electronic monitoring and better science that will help managers understand where the fish stocks are going.
But none of this gets to the reason the monument was protected from industrial fishing and oil, gas, and other natural resources extraction to begin with. In order to prevent the worst effects of climate change and ecosystem collapse, scientists say that 30 percent of America’s land and ocean must be protected by 2030, a goal supported by 86 percent of Americans. Sadly, with the demise of the monument, nearly 85 percent of the protected ocean in the continental United States has been lost, leaving less than 0.1 percent shielded from industrial extraction, according to calculations from the Center for American Progress. With 95 percent of Americans agreeing that the establishment of additional marine protected areas is needed, there is plenty of room to grow.
Here’s one proposal: While large, remote monuments are critically important to large, remote species like whales, the future of ocean protection could also be closer to home. To protect nature — but also communities and fisheries — governments could invest in the restoration of salt marshes and seagrass beds, and this could lay the groundwork for state-specific nature protection goals. Along with job creation, coastal restoration offers storm and flood protection, removes carbon from the atmosphere, and improves fisheries.
The president has made his views clear — neither science, economics, ocean health, nor the struggles of fishermen matter to him. It is up to the rest of us to build our own vision for what the nation’s ocean and coastlines could and should be — a vision based on science that ensures everyone has a voice, and restores the productivity and health of America’s oceans, coasts, and communities.
Miriam Goldstein is managing director for Energy and Environment and the director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.