Common sense and science appear to have returned to United States environmental policy. In a flurry of executive orders during his first month in office, President Biden committed to pausing oil and gas leasing on federal lands and offshore areas, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, reviewing the Trump administration’s efforts to shrink national monuments, and pledging to protect from development 30% of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030.
These have all been momentous steps forward after four years defined by climate denial and scorn for science. The day one executive order to review the boundaries and conditions of several monuments, including the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, has been an especially critical step. Taken together with the order to protect 30% of the ocean, there is certainly reason for optimism about the future of this vital resource.
We Need to Restore Protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Monuments
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is the Atlantic Ocean’s only marine national monument, and it includes close to 5,000 square miles of protected waters off the coast of Cape Cod (for scale, that’s just about the size of Connecticut).
From surface to seafloor, the canyons and seamounts are truly spectacular. The canyons cut thousands of meters below the sea’s surface, while the seamounts rise like mountains from the ocean floor. Together, they provide a home for all sorts of marine life, from ancient deep-sea corals growing in shades of pink and orange to blue whales, the largest animal on Earth, swimming at the surface.
Unfortunately, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts are at risk. The Trump administration unlawfully opened the monument to commercial fishing last summer, threatening the fragile species that call the area home. Large, heavy fishing gear can destroy coral communities that take decades and even centuries to recover, if at all. Fishing gear can also unintentionally snare marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds.
Biden’s executive order offers hope for the monument. His action gave the Department of Interior a 60-day period to evaluate the conditions of this and other monuments, and we expect its report later this month. Our goal is for Biden to act quickly and restore the protections prohibiting commercial fishing in this area.
New England Is Home to the Fastest-Warming Body of Water
New England’s ocean, like all ocean waters worldwide, is at extraordinary risk due to climate change and the unsustainable human uses of its resources. Three-quarters of the planet’s lands and two-thirds of its marine environments have been significantly altered by human activity.
An estimated one million species are threatened with extinction, including about a third of sharks and shark relatives, a third of reef-forming corals, and over a third of marine mammals.
Finally, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s ocean waters, harming our fisheries like Atlantic cod and altering the distribution and feeding habits of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, further imperiling this species.
A Healthy Ocean Can Help Us Turn the Story Around
This reality is sobering. But we still have time to turn the story around. Restoring protections for areas like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument and going further by setting aside 30% of the ocean – as President Biden has promised – will go a long way. These initiatives can help bolster the biological diversity of our waters and build ocean resilience to climate change.
A healthy ocean is critical to healthy life on Earth. The world’s oceans have absorbed the brunt of climate-damaging emissions over the last decades. As a result, the waters are warmer, more acidic, starved of oxygen, and less habitable for fish and marine wildlife. Protected areas like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts are critical in the fight to give these waters and the species that depend on them a chance to recover.
We know that setting aside parts of the ocean leads to healthy marine life, which fuels an abundance and diversity of life in adjacent waters. That, in turn, supports our ocean economy, including commercial and recreational fishing and whale watching in the long run. Everyone wins.
The New Administration Offers a Promising Future for the Ocean
It’s going to take a lot more work to erase the disastrous environmental rollbacks from the last four years. But these early announcements from the White House give reason for optimism about the next four.
Biden’s focus on equity will ensure that the future of conservation will be one of inclusion and access to the natural world for everyone. The emphasis on conserving 30% of waters through protected areas like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts means we are giving the ocean a shot at recovering from the damage humans have inflicted.
Of course, paper pledges are meaningless without action to follow them up. With your help, we can ensure that the Biden administration follows through on its promise. Today, we are one step closer to leaving a healthy ocean environment for future generations.
An earlier version of this blog was published by Our Daily Planet.