The decision by the Obama administration to pass on a proposal to make a large swath of the Gulf of Maine a national monument is not only a victory for fishermen. It’s also a win for those who favor open government.
News came late last week that the administration would not, in fact, use the federal Antiquities Act to make the area around Cashes Ledge a permanent “maritime national monument” by executive decree.
Such status is set aside for areas of outstanding scientific, cultural, conservation and aesthetic value. President George W. Bush established four and Obama expanded one, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, according to the Associated Press.
Cashes Ledge, about 80 miles off the coast of Cape Ann, provides a habitat to sharks, dolphins and sea turtles and migrating, endangered North Atlantic right whales.
The area, more than 520 square nautical miles, is certainly worth protecting. However, there are already rules in place doing just that. The area is currently off limits to fishing, and there are no plans for that to change.
That’s what makes the attempted end-around by environmental groups so distressing to the fishing industry. Instead of working with all interested parties, groups like the Environmental Law Foundation tried to bypass negotiation, compromise and public input by going directly to the Obama administration. There was just one public meeting on the proposal — in Rhode Island — and most of the discussion on the designation between environmentalists and the federal government took place in secret, behind closed doors.
That’s no way to do the people’s business, and it does little to engender trust in the environmental groups, as well-intentioned as their goals may be.
“As stakeholders who participated in a lengthy, thorough and transparent public process to identify and protect important marine habitats such as Cashes Ledge, we are grateful and pleased to hear that the ... process we all followed has been acknowledged and respected by the Obama administration,” said Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition.
The New England Fishery Management Council also noted its role in setting protections not just for Cashes Ledge but for the entire region — with many opportunities for public participation.
We’re pretty proud of the process we follow,” said Thomas Nies, the council’s executive director. “We understand that it doesn’t make everybody happy all the time. But I don’t think anyone can argue that we don’t provide plenty of opportunities for interested parties and the public to comment.”
The environmental groups also ignored the input of state governments, and last week’s news was met with some relief.
“Massachusetts welcomes the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s announcement that Cashes Ledge is not under consideration for designation as a national marine monument at this time,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said. “We will continue to be actively engaged in efforts to responsibly protect our state’s vital fishing industry while ensuring the preservation of important ecological areas.”
The environmental lobby is not abandoning its efforts.
The Conservation Law Foundation urged “people to tell their elected officials and the White House that Cashes Ledge needs protection, along with the canyons and seamounts.”
“Many groups and people support permanent protection and will continue to speak up for this important place,” said the statement attributed to Peter Shelley, CLF senior counsel.
Those supporting further restrictions on Cashes Ledge should certainly speak up. It should, however, be part of an open, transparent process that takes into account all opinions and input.