Baker team swims around marine monument controversy

Trump administration may reverse Obama decision creating monument

FILE - This undated file photo released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made during the Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition 2013, shows corals on Mytilus Seamount off the coast of New England in the North Atlantic Ocean. President Barack Obama established Sept. 15, 2016, the first national marine monument in the Atlantic. The move is designed to permanently protect nearly 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains off the coast of New England. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP, File)

BOSTON (State House News Service) – In course of the past year, a Connecticut-sized marine area off the coast of Cape Cod has been officially designated a national monument by one president and targeted for potential changes by the next.

It became subject to a new ban on commercial fishing, and now might have that ban removed.

Throughout the ping-ponging presidential decisions that have left the future of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument somewhat murky, the same concerns Gov. Charlie Baker first raised almost two years ago remain on the mind of his top environmental official.

“I think we’ve always pointed to the process, and making sure there was enough of a process that we know the right decisions have been made,” Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said. “We weren’t definitely saying the right or wrong decision was made. We definitely think there is value in conservation of those resources, but it’s just is the management plan that’s put out as part of it the right one, and I think we would know that answer through a more robust process, and that’s what we’ve always pointed to as having not occurred.”

In September 2016, President Barack Obama declared the canyons and seamounts area, about 130 miles southeast of Massachusetts, the Atlantic Ocean’s first marine monument. When the White House changed hands this year, it was one of 27 monuments the President Donald Trump charged his interior secretary with reviewing.

Trump’s executive order called on Secretary Ryan Zinke to study certain monuments designated under the Antiquities Act, including those where the Interior Department determined the decision “was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”

Zinke filed his recommendations with Trump in August, but kept the specifics under wrap. A leaked memo published last month by the Washington Post showed him suggesting that commercial fishing be allowed once more in the 4,913-square mile area, managed under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing fisheries management in federal waters.

Fishing industry interests are hopeful that restrictions will be loosened in the area while environmentalists are fighting to uphold Obama’s designation.

Asked recently about the recommendation, Beaton declined to say if he agreed that commercial fishing should return to the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, instead pointing back at the process by which it was declared a monument.

Beaton told the News Service he wanted to see Zinke’s review yield a “better understanding of the facts,” with more stakeholders involved in the discussion and “scientific evidence of impacts of different types of fishing.” Asked if he thought commercial fishing should be reintroduced, Beaton said, “It would depend on what those facts tell us.”

The Baker administration began highlighting concerns with the monument designation process as early as November 2015, when the governor wrote to Obama saying the a monument designation could undermine work by the New England Fishery Management Council to establish protections for the canyons and seamounts and to develop a broader ocean management plan.

“Their work, plans, and processes are underway, and will jeopardize already strained relationships with important stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishermen,” Baker wrote in the letter, which he later forwarded to Zinke. He expressed apprehension with the monument process, contrasting it with other efforts that involve “robust public input.”

Last September, when Obama announced the monument designation, Baker said he was “deeply disappointed by the federal government’s unilateral decision.”

As Zinke carried out his review, Baker in June wrote to the interior secretary, saying his concerns with the process “remain unchanged.” He asked for a “comprehensive report” into the facts behind the monument designation, an evaluation of the commercial fishing ban and “the provision of opportunities for meaningful stakeholder input and dialogue.”

“There was some opportunity for a public forum and public process,” Beaton said. “But we don’t know necessarily was it in line with the ocean management planning process, and did the fishing community have enough of a voice at the table, and did we get all the facts on the table to be able to understand the pluses and minuses of the whole thing. So I think that’s what we’re hoping to flush out of this, and I think that’s the direction the secretary is headed, but until we get official word out of his office, I don’t think we can speculate.”