The Trump administration announced on Friday that the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which encompasses over 5,000 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, will open to commercial fishing. The announcement came after the president attended a round-table discussion with commercial fishers from Maine who were concerned about the economic tolls of COVID-19 in their industry.

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Ocean experts are cautioning that the decision will cause comprehensive harm to the environment in the long run, especially as the proclamation will allow fishing within the monument without changing its size or boundaries. Brad Sewell, senior director of Oceans for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement that such a significant change to a monument must be done by Congress. Sewell cited that the Antiquities Act gives the president the power to protect specific natural areas, not the other way around. The 5,000-square-mile ocean monument is home to sea turtles, endangered whales, unique species of cold water coral reefs, four extinct underwater volcanoes and deep sea canyons teeming with marine life.

Related: Sea turtles thrive on empty beaches during COVID-19 lockdowns

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument has been open to sport fishing but closed to commercial fishing (with the exception of the red crab and lobster) since its creation in 2016 by President Obama. Any continuing fisheries were given a 7-year transition period to end their operations in the area by 2023.

The Seamounts monument has been no stranger to controversy, even before Trump’s recent decision. A year after its designation, five commercial fishing groups sued the Obama administration because they felt the president had created the monument illegally. Now, Trump’s announcement raises the question of the limits of presidential powers regarding changing the rules of national monuments altogether.

National Geographic’s Pristine Seas founder Enric Sala told National Geographic that these types of national monuments are established to preserve the country’s natural and historical sites. “We need pristine areas set aside so that we can see nature as it was before we overexploited it, and understand the true impact of fishing,” Sala said. “If commercial fishing were allowed in a monument, it would become just a name on a map, and no different than any other place in the ocean.”

Via National Geographic

Image via NOAA