Many consider the Grand Canyon one of America’s greatest natural wonders. Now, imagine having three canyons and five mountains of equal scale and breathtaking beauty right here in New England — except that these geologic wonders, which comprise the Northeast Canyons & Seamounts Marine National Monument, are submerged underwater more than 100 miles offshore.
Unfortunately, a recent decision by the Trump administration to open the region to commercial fishing exposes this venerable natural wonder to devastating impacts. Just because we can’t visit this seascape and experience the majesty of the canyons and seamounts in the same way we do the Grand Canyon doesn’t make them any less worthy of protection. In fact, the beauty of the underwater landscape, coupled with its rich marine ecosystem, mark the monument as an important piece of our country’s natural heritage that we must do our best to preserve and protect.
Spanning nearly 5,000 square miles, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument comprises three deep sea canyons, including Oceanographer Canyon, which is as deep as the Grand Canyon and anchors a deep-sea habitat rich in life important to New England. The monument also features four ancient, underwater volcanoes that are 100 million years old and stand taller than anything east of the Rocky Mountains.
Research at the New England Aquarium hints at the vast range of sea life that the habitat holds. During a recent flight, scientists spotted two species of dolphins with calves, blue whales, and a sei whale -- a species never before seen here. These findings represent only a slice of the abundant biodiversity in the region. Imagine, then, the true number of whales, dolphins, sharks and other marine life that need this place to survive — both at the surface and below.
Additional research by the Okeanos Explorer in 2018 and 2019 documented the system of corals, sponges and rock formations thriving beneath the waves. Underwater video shows how deep sea corals extend, tree-like, into the currents. The pictures provided otherworldly images of squishy sea sponges, colorful anemones, playful octopuses, and agile crabs climbing rocks. Recently published science affirms the monument as a highly interconnected biological hotspot with great potential for scientific discovery. New species continue to be discovered as we explore the depths of the monument. So when President Trump signed a proclamation stripping protections from this area, he not only put at risk the animals we know, but also the animals we don’t.
That said, the threats we understand are numerous. Vertical fishing lines in the water entangle dolphins and whales, cutting their flukes, flippers and tails and sometimes killing them. Fishing nets, scraping along the seafloor, break fragile corals that take thousands of years to grow. This threatens the ecosystem that a plethora of marine life depends on to survive. Moreover, since our knowledge continues to develop in real-time, vulnerable creatures living in the canyon depths and seamount slopes undoubtedly face risks we currently don’t fully comprehend.
Across the country, designating national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, shows our non-partisan tradition of preserving places that represent America’s natural beauty and heritage. With its richness of marine life, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is one of those treasures — even though we can’t visit it in the same way. We appreciate that our friends in the environmental community brought a legal challenge to the president’s proclamation. We are hopeful that the Massachusetts delegation will speak out to protect this monument, as the Rhode Island delegation did. The bottom line is that we need to win back safeguards, whether through a new presidential proclamation, the courts, or congressional oversight.
With threats from climate change, pollution and overfishing making life in the ocean more precarious than ever, marine life needs more places where it can rest, reproduce, and adapt free from human interference. If we want the ocean to continue sustaining life on Earth, we must set aside strongly protected places — such as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts — to allow it to do just that.
Kelsey Lamp is an oceans advocate with Environment Massachusetts, which works for clean air, clean water, clean energy, wildlife and open spaces, and a livable climate. Kelly Kryc, Ph.D. is the director of Conservation Policy and Leadership at the New England Aquarium.