Environmentalists Win Lawsuit Protecting Ocean Monuments

January 4, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
FILE - This undated file photo released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows deep-sea spiral coral during a dive on the New England Seamount chain in the North Atlantic Ocean. A federal appeals court on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, upheld former President Barack Obama's designation of the federally protected conservation area in the Atlantic, a move that commercial fishermen oppose. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP, File)

WASHINGTON – Environmentalists won an appeals court ruling in Washington, D.C. last week protecting ocean marine national monuments.

Marine national monuments refer to offshore underwater areas intended to protect coral reefs or wildlife. There are five of them in U.S. territorial waters.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruling came in a lawsuit filed by commercial fishing industry groups.

They were challenging President Obama’s designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England. They said the national monument designation means they can no longer fish in the roughly 5,000 square miles of ocean water, thereby cutting into their livelihoods.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument consists of three underwater canyons, four extinct undersea volcanoes called seamounts and the neighboring ecosystems.

It lies within the 200 miles of the U.S. mainland classified since 1983 as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. The United States claims exclusive rights to develop, exploit and protect natural resources within the zone.

Obama invoked authority for the national monument protection under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The law gives the president authority to create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features.

The fishermen’s lawsuit says offshore, underwater areas are not “federal lands” envisioned under the Antiquities Act.

They also said the president incorrectly claimed authority under the Antiquities Act when the National Marine Sanctuaries Act is the proper legislation for protecting offshore sites. Improperly invoking the Antiquities Act renders the Sanctuaries Act ineffective and redundant, the lawsuit says.

The appellate court disagreed, dismissing the fishing industry’s lawsuit.

“The Supreme Court has consistently held that the Antiquities Act reaches submerged lands and waters associated with them,” the court’s ruling said.

The Antiquities Act uses different definitions and procedures for protecting underwater sites than the Sanctuaries Act, the court said, adding, the site’s location within the Exclusive Economic Zone leaves no doubt the U.S. government has authority over it.

“The federal government’s unrivaled authority under both international and domestic law establishes that it ‘control[s]’ the [Exclusive Economic Zone] for purposes of the [Antiquities] Act,” the ruling said.

Environmentalists say the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts needs to be protected for its importance as a biodiversity hotspot, habitat for numerous rare and endangered species and a valuable scientific and historical site.

“Preserving ocean areas like this one will be absolutely key to ensuring the resilience of our oceans in a changing climate,” said Kate Desormeau, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The case is Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Dept. of Commerce, et al, U.S. Ct.App. – D.C., No. 18-5353, Dec. 27, 2019.

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