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Environmental groups sue Trump administration for allowing commercial fishing in protected waters

This undated file photo released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows corals in the protected waters of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off Cape Cod.
This undated file photo released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows corals in the protected waters of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off Cape Cod.NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration

Environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration on Wednesday, challenging its recent decision to allow commercial fishing in nearly 5,000 square miles of protected waters off Cape Cod.

The Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation and other groups said President Trump’s decision to open the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument — the only such protected waters off the East Coast — violated the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that President Obama used to create the monument in his last year in office.

“Trump has once again eliminated critical natural resource protections on a whim, and with no legal authority,” said Brad Campbell, president of the foundation. “This lawless act upends over a century of practice by presidents of both parties, and puts all national monuments on the block for the highest political bidder.”

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On a trip to Maine earlier this month, Trump announced he was reversing the designation that protected the controversial preserve about 130 miles southeast of Provincetown from lobstermen, draggers, and other fishermen.

Fishing groups had lobbied for the change, saying the restrictions had cost the industry millions of dollars. In a meeting with fishermen in Bangor, Trump told them: “This action was deeply unfair to Maine lobstermen. You’ve been treated very badly. They’ve regulated you out of business.”

White House officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The Connecticut-sized area features a range of unique coral, rare fish, endangered marine mammals, and sea turtles. It also contains three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and four underwater mountains.

In the lawsuit, CLF, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Natural Resources Defense Council argued that allowing commercial fishing in the protected waters is “incompatible with the proper care and management” of the marine monument.

“The Trump proclamation deprives the monument’s scientific objects of the protections they had … leaving them vulnerable to the very damage that the monument reservation was designed to avoid,” the groups wrote in the lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C.

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They also argued that the Antiquities Act empowers only the president to create national monuments. “It does not give the president the opposite power to revoke those protections,” they wrote.

Only Congress has that authority, they said.

“The Trump proclamation was wholly without statutory or constitutional authority, and is therefore unlawful,” they wrote.

Critics of Obama’s decision to use the Antiquities Act said the move 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, D.C.-based group that represents commercial fishermen. “That was a mistake, and whatever anyone thinks about President Trump is irrelevant.”

He also criticized the Conservation Law Foundation for its interpretation of the law.

“The record is clear that the highest political bidder during the Obama years was the environmental community, and that is why they succeeded in including a prohibition against commercial fisheries,” Vanasse said, noting that Obama did not ban recreational fishing in the protected area.

He and others in the fishing industry called Trump’s decision overdue. Before the ban, fishermen estimated that as many as 80 boats had regularly fished the area for lobster, crab, scallops, swordfish, and tuna. Fishermen said the closure has harmed their livelihoods.

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Environmental groups, however, contend that Trump’s move would harm fisheries because the monument protected a range of species, allowing their populations to thrive.

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.

“These activities will expose the marine life and ecosystems in and around the canyons and seamounts to a substantial risk of damage or permanent degradation, and greatly diminish their value for scientific research,” the lawsuit stated.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.