The Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts is an underwater ecological hotspot about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. It’s a thriving, incredibly diverse biological ecosystem, where hundreds of species of fish and invertebrates swarm over underwater mountains called seamounts. Several canyons there plunge into black depths teeming with a broad array of life, including colorful species of deep water corals, some of which grow over ten feet tall and are known to live for over a thousand years. It’s also been the site of exciting recent scientific discovery: an number of species believed to be new to science were found on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expedition in 2013.
“These are incredible wildlife landscapes,” said Peter Auster, a scientist with the University of Connecticut and the Mystic Aquarium. Taking a submarine or remote operated vehicle through them “is like a stroll through a Dr. Suess garden,” he told Quartz.
A coalition of environmentalists and scientists want the region, and another nearby area called the Cashes Ledge, to be declared marine national monuments. The groups are calling on President Obama to use his executive power under the American Antiquities Act to make that happen. The designation, which does not require Congressional approval, would forever prohibit any type of extraction, including fishing, mining and drilling, in those areas. The move is vigorously opposed by several fishing and mining groups.
Declaring national monuments is a popular presidential pastime, especially among those wrapping up their time in the White House, because it allows them to leave behind a memorable environmental legacy without encountering a great deal of controversy while still in office. Over the last century, sixteen presidents from both parties have designated more than 100 monuments. When President Bush left office in January 2009, he declared two marine national monuments in the U.S. Pacific Ocean. The regions cover 195,280 square miles and include the Mariana Trench as well as numerous uninhabited reefs and atolls in the south Pacific. But since there were few American commercial interests in those areas impacted by the decision, outcry was limited.
If President Obama declares the Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts a national monument, it would be the first US marine monument ever created in the Atlantic Ocean.