Could New England Host the Atlantic Ocean's First-Ever Marine National Monument? | Connecticut Public Radio

Could New England Host the Atlantic Ocean's First-Ever Marine National Monument?

Mar 30, 2016

An eight-foot tall bubblegum coral, one of many in a forest of colonies this size, grows on a vertical wall in Heezen Canyon. Scientists say the corals can take hundreds of years to get to be this big.
Credit NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program / 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition Science Team

The fight to grant permanent federal protection to three areas off New England's coast continues, despite a setback for conservationists at one of the spots. 

Two of the zones are located about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. They're called the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, and host underwater rifts deeper than the Grand Canyon, and submerged mountains higher than Mount Washington.

"This is an area of high discovery potential as well," said Peter Auster, a research scientist at Mystic Aquarium. "There was a single research cruise on NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer in 2013 that added 24 coral species and three species of deep sea fish to the known regional fauna."

Conservationists said the zone's ecosystems are fragile and diverse, so they're trying to get the areas protected by the White House as Marine National Monuments. If approved, they'd be the first ones ever in the Atlantic Ocean. 

A map of the areas proposed for federal protection. The White House announced last week Cashes Ledge will not be considered for "marine national monument" status.

There's little commercial fishing activity at Coral Canyons and the Seamounts now, but Scott Kraus, from the New England Aquarium, said future threats are real. "They include oil and gas exploration and drilling," and, he said, potential mining activity.

The third underwater zone up for "monument" consideration is Cashes Ledge, about 80 miles east of Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

Last week, the White House announced that zone was off the table for federal protection, at least for now.

The spot is already protected by the New England Fisheries Management Council, which makes it effectively closed to virtually all types of commercial fishing.

On a conference call with reporters, Peter Baker, who directs ocean conservation work in New England for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the Cashes Ledge announcement was "unfortunate" and he's uncertain when a decision from the White House on protecting Coral Canyons and the Seamounts will be made.