Opinion

Protecting New England’s Ocean Treasures With a Marine National Monument Designation

On Aug. 26, President Obama announced the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii to create the largest protected area on Earth. While the expanded monument is to be applauded in its own right, it is also important because it is amplifying our long-running national conversation about the need to protect our oceans, and building momentum for what many hope will be our next great marine monument: Coral Canyons and Seamounts in New England.

Located 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, along the southern edge of Georges Bank, Coral Canyons and Seamounts is comprised of a system of massive undersea canyons and four submerged volcanoes — making it New England’s marine equivalent of the Great Smoky Mountains. Supporting an extraordinary array of ocean wildlife, the area is home to unusually high concentrations of whales, dolphins, sea turtles, birds and colorful deep sea corals, some estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. In its deeper reaches dwell a bizarre and strange cast of deep sea creatures, from deep sea fish to bioluminescent jellies, to eerily waving fields of sea pens. And yet, these discoveries may be just the tip of the iceberg: Because of the area’s remote location, depth, and rugged character, it is remarkably pristine and remains a vital frontier for scientific exploration, with expeditions revealing more each year.

At our facility, in the field and behind the scenes, we engage in the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, sea turtles and much more. While we get to experience the wonders of the Atlantic Ocean on a daily basis, we also see the expansive loss of marine life and other negative effects of disruptive human activities. Unfortunately, Coral Canyons is no exception: The 320 marine species in the region’s canyons and the 630 species living in the seamounts are also extremely vulnerable to man-made threats. Offshore oil and gas development, commercial fishing, cable laying, and other disruptive processes all have the potential to threaten the existence of these deep-sea organisms and the communities in which they function.

These are just some of the reasons that a growing grassroots movement of community organizations, scientists, educators, business owners and many others has formed to call for permanent protection of Coral Canyons. After years of work to raise awareness about the unique character of the area, its wealth of contributions to the field of science, and the need for protection, our movement received a major boost last month when the Connecticut congressional delegation, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, called on the president to designate Coral Canyons as a national monument. At a recent event at Mystic Aquarium, the senator summed up the feelings of many monument supporters when he said, “I have become more and more aware of the value that this area may have a source of our learning about a world that we barely understand. As I talk to the scientists, what has most impressed me about the oceans is how much we have to learn.”

At Mystic Aquarium our job is to introduce the public to our ocean world, educate them about the myriad of aquatic ecosystems, and inspire in them a love of the ocean and a conservation ethic. In addition to those habitats that are easier to reach like coral reefs, kelp forests and rocky shores, it is equally important to introduce our guests to remote places. A monument designation for the Coral Canyons and Seamounts — an area every bit as rich and spectacular as the Grand Canyon — would not only help do that, it would give our children and grandchildren the opportunity to continue to study and learn from this truly spectacular living laboratory for generations to come.

 

Dr. Stephen Coan is the president and CEO of Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization committed to protecting the ocean environment through public engagement in conservation, STEM education, and research programs related to the ocean environment.

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