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President Biden’s flurry of actions to protect the environment reignites a controversy about the Atlantic’s only marine monument

Environmentalists and fishing groups said they are prepared for a legal battle over commercial fishing in the marine national monument.
Environmentalists and fishing groups said they are prepared for a legal battle over commercial fishing in the marine national monument.NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration

Last June, as part of a concerted campaign to dismantle the environmental policies of the Obama administration, Donald Trump met with fishermen in Maine and signed a proclamation that allowed commercial fishing in nearly 5,000 square miles of federally protected waters southeast of Cape Cod.

But elections have consequences, and on Wednesday President Joe Biden signed an executive order that could overturn Trump’s decision and restore the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean to its former status, part of a flurry of executive actions Biden took on his first day in office to reverse many of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.

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Environmental advocates called the first steps promising, a welcome change from the policies of the past four years.

“Through his recent executive orders, President Biden has sent a powerful message that the EPA will be doing what it is supposed to be doing — protecting public health and the environment,” said Kyla Bennett, science policy director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Among his first actions, Biden signed a letter that promised the United States would officially rejoin the Paris climate accords in 30 days. In 2019, Trump notified the United Nations that the United States would withdraw from an agreement that committed nearly 200 countries to take drastic action to reduce their carbon emissions.

In all, Biden ordered federal agencies to begin reviewing and restoring more than 100 environmental regulations that were dismantled or weakened by the Trump administration.

Biden revoked the permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would have contributed to massive amounts of carbon emissions by transporting fossil fuels from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast. He reversed policies that sought to roll back vehicle emissions standards, which restricted the amount of greenhouse gases that could be emitted from tailpipes; methane leaks from oil and gas wells; and a range of energy standards for buildings and appliances.

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Biden also ordered a temporary moratorium on oil and natural gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and reestablished a working group that had studied the social costs of greenhouse gases.

In another sign of Biden’s focus on overturning Trump’s environmental policies, his administration just hired Melissa Hoffer of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office as principal counsel of the Environmental Protection Agency. Hoffer, chief of the energy and environment bureau, was the architect of more than 200 lawsuits and other actions the state filed over the past four years against Trump’s rollbacks of protections.

In a statement, Attorney General Maura Healey said Hoffer’s role would be “essential in repairing Donald Trump’s wreckage over the past four years, and will move America forward in protecting public health, pursuing environmental justice, and tackling the existential threat of climate change.”

While many of Biden’s orders could have a significant impact on New England, the review of the marine monument, a Connecticut-sized area that lies about 130 miles southeast of Provincetown, has stirred immediate controversy.

The monument 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. For environmental groups that had pushed for years to protect 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, Biden’s decision was gratifying.

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“Last summer, we watched in shock as President Trump effectively nullified the monument status of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts by opening it to commercial fishing,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “Defending this monument is critical for protecting valuable species, confronting the climate crisis, and leaving a healthy ocean for future generations.”

The protected area was one of several national monuments that Trump scaled back or altered. Biden also called for the Department of Interior to review changes Trump made to the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah.

Barack Obama had established the marine monument in 2016 using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, a move critics said circumvented federal law established in the 1970s to regulate fisheries.

In response to Biden’s order, representatives of fishing groups urged the new administration to consult them before overturning Trump’s policies.

“The hope of the fishing industry is that if the Biden administration is endeavoring to unite the country, then the Biden administration will actively reach out to fishing communities and not only discuss the marine monument with them but listen to the fishing communities’ concerns and act upon those concerns,” said Andrew Minkiewicz, an attorney at the Fisheries Survival Fund in Washington, D.C.

He and others urged the Biden administration to respect the traditional fishery management process, which allows for councils composed of fishermen, environmental advocates, and regulators to determine where and how much fishing can occur.

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“I believe, as long as this is reviewed fairly, in terms of the science and law, there’s no reason that fishing shouldn’t be allowed there,” said Bob Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a Washington-based group that represents commercial fishermen. “It’s sustainable. But if it’s a political decision and about Obama’s legacy, then it’s going to be a problem.”

Before the waters were protected, fishermen estimated that as many as 80 boats had regularly fished the area for lobster, crab, scallops, swordfish, and tuna. It’s unclear how many resumed fishing there after Trump’s proclamation.

Jim Budi, a captain of a swordfish boat out of New Bedford that fishes in the marine monument, was grateful that Trump’s proclamation allowed him to resume fishing there over the past six months. His boat recently returned from the area after what he described as “our best trip of the season.”

He urged Biden to allow the industry to continue fishing in the marine monument.

“Every year is different, but if we couldn’t fish there this year, it would have been devastating,” he said, noting that swordfish regularly migrate through the area.

“The justification of the marine monument is crazy; it’s a false premise that it protects endangered species,” he said. “The effect we have fishing on the surface is about as negligible as a jet flying over the Grand Canyon.”

Vikki Spruill, president of the New England Aquarium, which had long advocated for the creation of the marine monument, said their scientists have observed thousands of dolphins there, whale sharks, manta rays, squid, sperm whales, and even rare blue whales

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“The aquarium is advocating for strong protections to be fully restored, protections that would prohibit commercial fishing,” she said. “To ensure that the ocean continues to be healthy and provide for all life on Earth, it is critically important that we set aside places that provide safe environments for wildlife in the ocean to thrive.”


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