Biden proposes Atlantic Coast’s ‘Grand Canyon’ as marine sanctuary

The White House today approved the designation of the largest underwater canyon on the Atlantic coast as one of the nation’s next underwater parks, but refrained from enacting immediate protections that could protect the “hotspot ecological” from commercial fishing, energy development or other threats.

The Biden administration has announced it will begin the process of saving the Hudson Canyon — which sits 100 miles off the coasts of New York and New Jersey and rivals the Grand Canyon — in a series of actions to mark World Oceans Day today.

In addition to initiating the designation of a new national marine sanctuary, the White House has pledged to develop a “whole-of-government ocean climate action plan” on climate mitigation and adaptation strategies based on the ‘ocean.

NOAA will oversee the process of designating the Hudson Canyon, which would be part of an existing group of 15 underwater parks that include both freshwater and ocean sites.

But this process, which includes public comment, the drafting of environmental impact statements and management plans, and the potential development of rules, is not fast, with the final decision taking two to three years.

“A sanctuary near one of the most densely populated areas in the northeastern United States would connect diverse communities in the region to the ocean and the canyon in new and different ways,” the NOAA administrator said. , Rick Spinrad, in a press release. “It would also help advance the administration’s commitment to conserving and restoring special marine places, leaving a lasting legacy for future generations.”

The Biden administration has touted the move — the second marine sanctuary it has sought to advance, as well as the proposed 7,000-square-mile Chumash National Heritage Marine Sanctuary off California’s central coast — as a step towards fulfilling its “America the Beautiful” conservation commitment. (green wireNovember 9, 2021).

This program aims to protect 30% of the country’s land and water in its natural state by 2030 with the aim of safeguarding biodiversity and combating climate change, as well as obtaining equitable access to the outdoors. .

“As someone who grew up in New York and has pursued a career in ocean science, I am excited about how this incredible underwater environment can inspire a shared interest in conserving our ocean,” said Spinrad.

The administration has touted the canyon, which stretches 7.5 miles wide and reaches depths of up to 2.5 miles, as an “ecological hotspot,” providing habitat for endangered, protected and sensitive, including sperm whales, sea turtles, and unique and diverse seep communities’ as well as cold-water corals.

The site is also home to several wrecks, including US military radar platforms and communications cables.

According to a 2016 nomination to protect the Hudson Canyon submitted by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium, site protections should “prevent inconsistent uses such as the extraction of oil, gas and minerals in the Hudson Canyon, helping to maintain fish and wildlife populations.” , protect our coastline, and secure a future for the economically important fishing and tourism industries that depend on healthy ocean ecosystems.

But the proposal also notes that a sanctuary designation — which could cover 2,900 square miles — could prevent future leasing of commercial wind power.

“Although the proposed sanctuary site is much farther offshore than current wind harvesting technology or economics can support, the development of wind power in the proposed and future offshore rental sites New York and New Jersey will likely impact migratory species of fish, marine mammals, turtles, and especially seabirds,” the proposal states.

The late Professor Peter Rona of Rutgers University stood in 2006 near computer-generated maps showing the Hudson Canyon at the bottom of the ocean. The canyon rivals the Grand Canyon in size. | Mel Evans/AP Photo

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation has praised the proposed sanctuary on the Atlantic coast, saying the underwater park system would be key to safeguarding “unique ecosystems, extraordinary seascapes and treasured places for people’s enjoyment”. .

“Hudson Canyon in an incredible underwater seascape that holds untold treasures yet to be discovered,” said NMSF President and CEO Kris Sarri, who added that the designation is a key step in achieving the goals. conservation of the administration.

But some environmentalists and progressive activists have questioned the effectiveness of the marine sanctuary system, arguing both that it is underfunded and that it may not sufficiently protect marine life.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, released an analysis last fall saying the national system of marine sanctuaries needed significant funding to “achieve meaningful conservation goals” (E&E News PMDecember 16, 2021).

Environmentalists have also argued that while sanctuaries are often used to prohibit oil and gas drilling, some sites allow commercial bottom trawling or other commercial activities that can endanger marine life (green wireOctober 5, 2021).

“Any move in this direction by the Biden administration is encouraging,” Rick Steiner, a retired professor of marine conservation at the University of Alaska, said in an interview. “The conservation outcome of these proposed designations will depend on what activities are permitted and prohibited in these waters. The marine science community would argue that the stronger the protections, the better. »

But Steiner warned that the process of designating the sanctuary can be slow and urged President Joe Biden to instead use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish new national marine monuments.

This law allows presidents to set aside existing public lands and waters as monuments to protect areas of cultural, scientific, or historical interest.

“We are still awaiting progress on marine monument designations from the Biden administration,” Steiner noted.

He also warned that any new sanctuary must be large enough to avoid a “postage stamp” strategy that “will look good on paper, but fall short of providing effective ecosystem protection”.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, established off the coast of Massachusetts by former President Barack Obama in 2016, is the only such site in the Atlantic Ocean. It spans over 4,900 square miles.

But Bob Vanasse, executive director of industry group Saving Seafood, welcomed the decision to use the Sanctuary Act rather than take executive action.

“I appreciate that they are using the Marine Sanctuary Act to do this, which allows input from affected ocean users and will allow real science to be taken into account, which is exactly why we opposed and continue to oppose the marine monument designation,” Vanasse said, referring to the ongoing legal battle over the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts site (E&E News PMOctober 8, 2021).

Last fall, Biden reinstated commercial fishing bans on the Atlantic Ocean landmark that former President Donald Trump rescinded in 2020.

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