TIME Environment

President Obama Calls First Marine National Monument a Response to Climate Change

It consists of 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains

(WASHINGTON) — Creating the Atlantic Ocean’s first marine national monument is a needed response to dangerous climate change, oceanic dead zones and unsustainable fishing practices, President Barack Obama said Thursday.

The new Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument consists of nearly 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains off the New England coast. It’s the 27th time that Obama has created or enlarged a national monument.

“If we’re going to leave our children with oceans like the ones that were left to us, then we’re going to have to act and we’re going to have to act boldly,” Obama said at a State Department conference. More than 20 countries represented at the meeting were also announcing the creation of their own marine protected areas.

Monument designations come with restrictions on certain activities. The White House said the designation will lead to a ban on commercial fishing, mining and drilling, though a seven-year exception will occur for the lobster and red crab industries. Others, such as whiting and squid harvesters, have 60 days to transition out. Recreational fishing will be allowed within the monument.

Supporters of the new monument say protecting large swaths of ocean from human stresses can sustain important species and reduce the toll of climate change. Fishermen worry it will become harder for them to earn a living as a result of Obama’s move.

“This is deplorable,” said Grant Moore, president of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, in describing the designation.

White House officials said the administration listened to industry’s concerns, and noted the monument is smaller than originally proposed and contains a transition period for companies. Obama said helping oceans become more resilient to climate change will help fishermen.

Jon Williams, president of the Atlantic Red Crab Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, said his company will survive, but the changes designed to address some of the industry’s concerns don’t sway him about the merits of the monument.

“We’ve been fishing out there for 35 years,” Williams said. “It’s a big blow to us.”

Obama said the world was asking too much of its oceans. He said the investments the U.S. and other nations were taking with new marine protected areas were vital for their economy and national security, but “also vital to our spirit.” He noted that he had spent his own childhood looking out over the ocean shores and being humbled by the endless expanse.

“I know that in a contest between us and the oceans, eventually the oceans will win one way or the other,” he said. “So it’s up to us to adapt, not the other way around.”

In all, the Atlantic Ocean monument will include three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and four underwater mountains. It is home to such protected species as the sperm, fin and sei whales, and Kemp’s ridley turtles. Expeditions also have found species of coral found nowhere else on earth.

Environmental groups pushed the effort to designate the new monument and sought to make the case it was as important to be good stewards of the ocean as it was the land and air. They described the monument, located about 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, as one of the least fished areas in the U.S. Atlantic, which is part of why it was chosen.

Their efforts proved persuasive with a president who is also looking to establish his own legacy as a protector of the environment. Obama noted that he has protected more land and water through monument designations than any president in history.

Associated Press writers Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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