President Obama’s proclamation establishing the monument forbids most fishing in the 5,000 square mile area—roughly the size of the Connecticut. What little fishing is allowed to continue is phased out over the next 7 years. This was all done with the stroke of a pen, without any obligation to consider impacts on New England’s iconic fishing communities or whether the designation would be a net environmental benefit.
From a libertarian environmentalist perspective, this situation is about as bad as it gets. The procedure for monument designations stinks. One person unilaterally destroys a wide swath of productive activity, often under circumstances that ensure he will avoid any political accountability. Monument designations, including this one, increase substantially at the end of a President’s second term, once elections cease being a motivator and dreams of building a legacy take precedence. What’s a voter to do?
Ocean monument designations can also undermine environmental protection in the long term by shifting fishermen from healthy, sustainable fisheries towards more vulnerable ones. Over the last several decades, federal and state officials, working with fishermen, have gone to great lengths to reduce overfishing and ensure sustainability of fisheries near the United States. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, regional councils made up of federal, state, and industry representatives set catch limits that are allocated among the region’s fishermen and regulate fishing methods, equipment, and areas to minimize environmental impacts. This collaborative, economical approach has been very successful.
PLF’s clients in the case, for instance, have worked with their councils to reduce the number of permits, knowing that these costly sacrifices will pay off in the long run through healthier, sustainable fisheries. In the Georges Bank—the area where this monument is located—those efforts have lead to the recovery of the fishery, with the lobster population reaching record numbers. The monument designation punishes the fishermen for these successful conservation efforts by kicking them out of the fishery they helped recover.
Monument designations can also undermine conservation in another way. The fishermen who are displaced by the monument will have to go somewhere. Since the surrounding fisheries are not as healthy as the one designated as a monument, the result will be increased pressure on those fisheries. This monument will also push fishermen further in shore, where there’s a greater risk of incidental impacts on migrating whales and conflict with other fishermen’s gear.
Because of the economic and environmental concerns, the monument was opposed by many when it was proposed. Industry opposed it, for obvious reasons. But the Governors of Maine and Massachusetts did too. Congress held a hearing and passed a bill reiterating the monuments could not be designated in the ocean (which died in the Senate). Most tellingly, all of the fishery management councils together filed a letter criticizing the proposal on environmental grounds. According to the councils, monument designations undermine their efforts to sustainably manage fisheries.