President Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality has said they won’t create a marine national monument in the Cashes Ledge portion of the Gulf of Maine. The announcement revives a months-old debate about how best to protect some of New England’s richest and rarest ocean resources. 

At issue are two dramatic – and dramatically different – areas off the coast of New England. The first is Cashes Ledge. Actually, the Ledge is just one feature of a larger area about eighty miles east of Cape Ann, sometimes called the Cashes Ledge complex. It is home to deep, lush kelp forests that have been compared to jungles for both their density and their ability to support a diversity of life, from sponges and lobsters, to fish and whales.

The second area lies some one hundred south-south-east of Cashes Ledge. Here, the seafloor that has been gently sloping away from the coast abruptly plunges into steep-walled canyons, some deeper than Grand Canyon. Their sides are dotted with rare deep-sea corals that, like scaled-down versions of their tropical reef-building cousins, provide habitat for sea stars, snails, and crabs. Farther offshore are seamounts of similar scale, and cracks in the seafloor leak methane and heat that allows rich ecosystems to thrive in the cold, dark deep ocean.  

About a year ago, a coalition of environmental groups and scientists began pressing President Obama to use executive authority granted by the Antiquities Act to declare these two areas – some six thousand square miles in all – a marine national monument. Doing so would permanently protect them from all commercial activity, including fishing and mining. 

The proposal sparked a debate about the role of public process in marine conservation. Many fishermen, as well as some ocean planners and scientists, felt that a presidential declaration would unfairly overwrite years of painstaking work by the New England Fishery Management Council, a fishing regulatory body that is required to engage scientists, stakeholders, and the public in its decision-making. The Council has maintained Cashes Ledge as an area largely closed to fishing for over a decade, and is in the early stages of considering protections for the New England canyons and seamounts. Currently, that area is not heavily fished, because of the deep, uneven terrain.

Last week, a spokesperson for the White House's Council on Environmental Quality announced that they were no longer considering a marine national monument designation for the Cashes Ledge area. At a webinar this week, advocates for a monument acknowledged the set-back, but continued to press their case, presenting updated ecological analyses and saying they still hope to change President Obama’s mind. 
“The science continues to evolve,” says Peter Baker, director of Northeast ocean policy for Pew Charitable Trusts. “The case for protecting both Cashes Ledge and the Canyons and Seamounts continues to grow, as does the public support and the political support for doing so. And the president has at his discretion to use or not use the Antiquities Act to protect these areas at any time.”
In contrast, Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney with the Fisheries Survival Fund, says taking Cashes Ledge off the table is a step in the right direction, and shows that the President is listening to the concerns about public process. 
“We had a ten year debate about what to do with that area,” says Minkiewicz. “To then come in after ten years of debate and unilaterally put on [a] different set of restrictions would undo the ten years of debate - the push and the pull, the take and the give - that we had throughout the whole regulatory process.”
Minkiewicz says there’s also a fear that designating any one area in New England’s waters a marine national monument could be a slippery slope to closing even more – and more lucrative – areas using executive power under the Antiquities Act. 

That’s exactly what Pew Charitable Trusts, Conservation Law Foundation, and other monument supporters would like to see. They point out that marine national monuments encompass hundreds of thousands of square miles in the Pacific Ocean, but there is not a single such monument in the Atlantic Ocean. And, they say, protections conferred by fishery managers are inadequate – reversible, and unable to prevent other commercial activities, like fossil fuel or metals mining. 
Last week’s decision leaves open the question of whether or not the Obama administration will move to protect the New England Canyons and Seamounts. Minkiewicz says the Cashes Ledge area was, by far, the most controversial part of the monument proposal. Although there is no formal process or timeline for a monument designation, both sides say they hope and expect to have a decision on the canyons and seamounts before Obama leaves office in ten months’ time.