Proposed sanctuary off New England would protect coral and marine species — and anger fishermen
A plan that would designate a unique undersea area 150 miles off the New England coast as the nation’s first Atlantic marine national monument has been met with immediate opposition from commercial fishermen.
Connecticut’s congressional delegation and environmental and educational groups want President Obama to preserve the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area, which lies along the continental shelf. It includes underwater canyons on the scale of the Grand Canyon, sea mounts that rise as much as 7,700 feet off the seafloor, and a stunning array of oceanic coral and marine species.
Scientists have identified at least 73 coral species in the region and nearly 1,000 marine species, including the endangered sperm whale.
The proposal, announced Thursday, would dramatically restrict commercial fishing in that area and is drawing fierce opposition from commercial fisherman like Bobby Guzzo of Stonington, Conn., who owns and operates two boats.
“That’s just the government trying to take all our water,” Guzzo said Thursday from aboard his fishing vessel. “I’m dead set against it.”
Joseph Gilbert’s Empire Fisheries operates four fishing boats out of Stonington, near the Rhode Island border. He also has problems with the proposed undersea sanctuary.
“Fishermen are conservationists, too,” Gilbert said, explaining that he believes the proposal “is well-intentioned” but “goes too far,” without considering the effect on commercial fishing operations and supplies of fish for consumers.
“A lot of these areas are protected already,” Gilbert said.
The Connecticut lawmakers and their allies are calling on Obama to use his executive power to declare the region a marine national monument. The coalition says the action would protect the region from commercial activities that might damage the marine ecology and the species that depend upon it.
“The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area, a pristine hotspot of diverse and fragile wildlife and habitats, is deeply deserving of this designation,” the congressional delegation’s letter to Obama said. “This area is just as precious as any national park and its riches just as priceless.”
Environmental activists and marine scientists joined Richard Blumenthal, one of Connecticut’s two Democratic U.S. senators, at a Thursday news conference in New Haven to kick off the campaign to win national marine monument status for the 4,000-square-mile undersea region.
Commercial fishing groups such as the National Coalition for Fishing Communities argue that there already exist federal laws and regulatory commissions to protect valuable marine resources like those within the proposed marine sanctuary.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for regulating fishing in the region, is also opposed to creation of a protected marine monument off New England’s continental shelf. Commercial fishing organizations warn that the plan would hamper fishing for red crab, swordfish and tuna as well as offshore lobster fisheries.
Jon Mitchell, mayor of New Bedford, Mass., New England’s most important fishing port, has also objected to the proposal, as has Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage.
Environmental groups that include the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, the Sierra Club, and the National Resources Defense Council have been pleading for months for a presidential decision in favor of the proposed marine monument.
“This is a game-changing proposal that will permanently protect the area’s precious corals, marine life and vital habitats,” said Brad Sewell, director of fisheries and U.S. Atlantic programs for the National Resources Defense Council.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversees a network of 170,000 square miles of underwater parks ranging from the Great Lakes to the Florida Keys and the Pacific Ocean. The system covers 13 national marine sanctuaries and several marine national monuments.
Controversy continues to surround one recent proposal asking Obama to dramatically expand the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off Hawaii. The plan would increase the marine monument and fishing sanctuary from 140,000 to 583,000 square miles.
Last month, various officials in Hawaii voiced their opposition to the plan at a rally in Honolulu, warning it would significantly damage their state’s fishing industry.
Hladky writes for the Hartford Courant.
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