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New Poll the Latest Salvo in Fight Over a Marine National Monument for New England

Kelp growing on Cashes Ledge

A new poll finds that eighty percent of Massachusetts residents favor protecting special ocean areas from activities like mining and fishing. A coalition pushing President Obama to create a marine national monument in New England waters say this is one more measure of support. But opponents say the poll was misleading and biased.

The campaign for a marine national monument is about a year old. The Protect New England's Ocean Treasures Coalition, consisting of the Mystic Aquarium and New England Aquarium, plus ten national environmental groups, have been asking President Obama to declare a marine national monument encompassing two areas off the New England coast.

The first is Cashes Ledge, about eighty miles out in the Gulf of Maine. The area is home to the richest, deepest kelp forests on the east coast, and fishing there is restricted by the New England Fishery Management Council. In March, the Obama administration announced they wouldn’t declare a monument there.

Officials are still accepting public comment and considering protections for another area southeast of Nantucket. Here, the seafloor plunges dramatically in a series canyons, some larger than the Grand Canyon. Just offshore, there are undersea mountains of a similar scale. These areas contain rare, slow-growing deep-sea corals.

The pro-monument Coalition has said all along that their proposal for the New England canyons and seamounts has widespread public support, citing more than 275,000 comments submitted to date.

“The vast majority of people in Massachusetts and Rhode and, in fact, in America, we believe support more protections for the ocean, not less,” said Peter Baker, director of ocean conservation for Pew Charitable Trusts.

A new poll of Massachusetts and Rhode Island residents has found that four out of five respondents favor permanently protecting special ocean areas from activities like fishing and mining. When asked to weigh both the ecological benefits and economic impacts of designating a marine national monument for the canyons and seamounts, sixty seven percent responded favorably.

“Residents who live in this area are plugged into the fact that there are a lot of uses in the ocean, they all matter, but we need to balance them with environmental protection,” said Lisa Dropkin, a principal at Edge Research. “Our past polling in New England has shown that people are pretty supportive of protected areas.”

The poll was commissioned by The Protect New England's Ocean Treasures Coalition, and conducted by Edge Research, a group with a history of conducting polls about ocean and conservation issues.

The National Coalition for Fishing Communities has criticized the poll, calling it misleading. They say the way the poll was constructed led people into saying yes. Also, they argue economic impacts on fisheries were down-played, and alternative ways of achieving conservation goals - besides a marine monument – were omitted.

“This isn’t an issue of do you believe or do you not believe important natural assets should be protected,” said Bob Vanasse, Executive Director of Saving Seafood. “It’s a question of how they should be protected, what should be allowed in those areas, and should there be a fair public process using existing law to do that.” 

The fishing industry has maintained that they’re not opposed to protecting important areas, but that those protections should come out of a transparent public process. The pro-monument coalition counters that the fishery management process doesn’t provide adequate protection, and the federal legislature is unlikely to act. That leaves executive action as the only feasible option, they say.

The monument designation process doesn’t require a formal proposal, and there’s no timeline for a decision. Both sides would love to see President Obama make a decision sooner rather than later.

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