President Obama to protect vital ocean habitat off New England

Mytilus Seamount, home to a variety of marine life, is among areas protected in the new Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, flickr.

A new national monument in the Atlantic Ocean will preserve underwater landscape and marine life that depends on it.

President Obama is invoking the Antiquities Act to designate Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, encompassing a series of underwater canyons and seamounts (inactive, submerged volcanoes jutting from the ocean floor). 

irst Marine National Monument Designated in the U.S. Atlantic ...

Good news: The U.S. just got its first national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. This is a huge win for the puffins, whales, deep-sea corals, and other creatures that thrive in the deep canyons and underwater mountains in this region.

Posted by Pew Environment on Thursday, September 15, 2016

This marine monument, the first in the Atlantic Ocean, harbors a stunning array of life. Over the years, the intense push to fish, drill and mine in our oceans has put these delicate ecosystems at risk, even as climate change causes a host of new threats beneath the rapidly heating waves. 

Octopus near Physalia Seamount, within the monument area. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, flickr.

“We have a responsibility to steward not only the land and air, but the waters and oceans of this planet that regulate our climate and sustain the teeming array of life beneath the surface," said Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams in a statement. "This is a designation that will pay forward for many generations to come.”  

“We have a responsibility to steward not only the land and air, but the waters and oceans of this planet..." -Jamie Williams 

Protecting large ocean reserves is especially important now. It has been estimated that marine life populations have declined by nearly 50 percent in the last 40 years, and experts say the worst may be yet to come; we might even be on the verge of a "major extinction event" in ocean ecosystems worldwide. Climate change is set to hit oceans hard, and protecting marine monuments should help boost resilience against various stressors. 

Coral in Nygren Canyon. Credit: Green Fire Productions, flickr.

The announcement comes just weeks President Obama expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, and two years after he expanded Pacific Remote Islands National Monument. He has now protected more land and water than any other president

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts are gems of biodiversity 

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts lie near where the continental shelf plummets into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. This area benefits from oxygen- and nutrient-rich cold sea water as well as the fact that much of it has been spared from human disruption, making it a priceless place for scientific study and preservation of rare species. 

Forming a crescent along the edge of the continental shelf, on the so-called Georges Bank, the Oceanographer, Gilbert, Lydonia, Nygren and Heezen canyons are home to colorful deep-sea corals, sponges, lobster, brittle stars, cod, herring and flounder. 

Grenadier (sometimes called rattail), a deep sea fish in Nygren Canyon. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, flickr.

The Bear, Physalia, Retriever and Mytilus seamounts, which are thought to have formed as much as 100 million years ago, are just as vital. These submarine mountains are where migrating whales rest during their long journeys, fish spawn and dozens of species of coral grow (due to their isolation, seamounts are often habitat for species found nowhere else on earth). 

Threats face deep-sea ecosystems 

Unfortunately, deep-sea ecosystems such as those found in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument are in greater jeopardy than ever before, as technological advancements allow fishing at extreme depths, including destructive bottom-trawling and dredging. Many fish around the canyons and seamounts reproduce infrequently, making their populations extremely vulnerable to overfishing, and trawling can damage the coral beds on which a variety of species rely. 

By giving the Coral Canyons monument status, President Obama will help to shield these unique spots from harm while still allowing activities like recreational fishing and diving in the area. 

The Antiquities Act has been used by presidents of both parties to preserve sites of unique natural and cultural value since President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law in 1906. President Obama honors that legacy at a perfect moment. 

Urchin in Oceanographer Canyon. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, flickr.