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Court Decision A Victory For Atlantic’s First Marine National Monument

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Octupus in the Physalia seamount, one of four seamounts that are protected as part of a Marine National Monument.

A federal appeals court has upheld the creation of the Atlantic Ocean’s first marine national monument. It’s the latest judicial validation for an Obama-era decision, which was praised by environmentalists.

President Barack Obama created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in 2016, using his authority under the federal Antiquities Act. 

The monument lies more than 100 miles southeast of Cape Cod. It includes an area that’s about the size of Connecticut. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the zone is filled with natural wonders, including deep-sea corals that are thousands of years old.

“Diving through these areas is like a walk through Dr. Seuss’ garden. But this isn’t a landscape in someone's imagination. This is real,” said Peter Auster, a scientist at Mystic Aquarium and UConn who has done research there since the 1980s. 

Credit NOAA
A map of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

“Much like driving up a mountain, where you go through different life zones, the same thing happens when you drop down through the ocean into the canyons,” Auster said. “We pack a huge amount of diversity into a small area, because of the steepness and the depth that occurs along the edge of our continental margin.”

The 2016 monument designation enacted a series of protections aimed at preserving the area’s unique geology and biodiversity. But commercial fisheries groups challenged its legality, arguing the monument was an overreach of executive branch authority, and upended years of industry efforts to promote sustainable fishing in the region. 

In 2018, a federal judge dismissed that lawsuit, and last month, an appeals court upheld that decision, reaffirming the validity of the Obama-era monument.

Jonathan Wood, an attorney representing the fisheries appellants, said in an email that “the next step will be a petition asking the entire D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case, which is due next month. Depending on the outcome, the case can then be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

In the meantime, environmentalists are celebrating the ruling.

“[The court] decision affirms that presidents have the authority to protect marine areas like this for the benefit of current and future generations,” said Kate Desormeau, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an emailed statement. “Preserving ocean areas like this one will be absolutely key to ensuring the resilience of our oceans in a changing climate.”

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