President Trump’s latest environmental rollback threatens Nantucket’s waters and beyond.
Sitting behind the presidential seal and a stack of lobster traps hauled in for the occasion, President Donald Trump announced his latest environmental rollbacks in Bangor, Maine, last June. One of a hundred such rollbacks he has pursued since taking office—sixty-six completed and thirty-four in progress— Trump signed a proclamation stating that he will undo most of the commercial fishing restrictions imposed on an area off the coast of the Cape and the Islands known as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
Despite the fact that less than 5 percent of Maine’s regional catch comes from Cape Cod, and that red crab and lobster fisheries had been provided with a seven-year exemption to transition their operations, along with free consulting and low-interest loans to purchase and upgrade their equipment, Trump claimed that President Barack Obama had been “deeply unfair to Maine lobstermen” whom he felt had been “regulated out of business,” adding to the fishermen assembled for the announcement: “You better remember your president.”
In September 2016, after nearly half a century of calls from prominent scientists to safeguard oceans in the face of climate change, these waters in question were granted federal protection from drilling, mining, commercial fishing and other extractive industries by Obama. Just weeks after acting unilaterally to quadruple the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, Obama again invoked the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish the first and only U.S. national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean, an area 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod encompassing 4,913 square miles of marine ecosystems that includes part of the Georges Bank fishing grounds.
Dubbed the “Serengeti of the Sea” and “Yellowstone under the Sea,” this marine monument boasts commingled warm and cool currents that circulate through submerged ravines stretching hundreds to thousands of feet deep, with sea-mounts rising up to eight thousand feet from the ocean floor to form intermittent pockets of shallow, sunlit waters rich in plankton and algae. It’s an ecosystem as abundant and complex as a rainforest that includes more than fifty-four species of deepsea corals, sponges, anemones and dense kelp groves, providing sustenance, shelter and spawning grounds for many at-risk and endemic species of fish, sharks, dolphins and birds, including endangered sperm, fin, sei and right whales and leatherback and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.
The waters surrounding the monument have historically been some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, generating tremendous wealth for Europeans and Americans for more than a thousand years. Georges Bank cod, in particular, was so plentiful during the 17th and 18th centuries that New England fishermen saturated global markets with it, supplying the Triangle Trade of the West Indies with cheap, salted fish and building Boston into an international commercial center, even as Nantucket’s whaling captains maintained their neutrality—and their trade relationship with the British Empire—throughout the Revolutionary War.
With early American fishermen diving headlong into the seafood gold rush, by 1850 the Georges Bank fish stocks were already dwindling. The halibut population had been all but decimated, and when the hand-fishing methods used for centuries yielded to the steam-powered trawler in the 1920s, other fish stocks like herring and haddock were also pushed into rapid decline. Even the mighty codfish became caught in a perfect storm of novel frozen food technology, sophisticated filleting gear and the invention of the “fish stick.”
By 1994, twenty years after the Magnuson-Stevens Act banned international factory fishing ships from American waters, Georges Bank had been almost entirely stripped of prime commercial fish and shellfish species, spurring officials to indefinitely close six thousand square miles of prime New England fishing grounds, with most fish populations still dwindling to this day, despite such efforts.
Trump’s proclamation to lift the protections on these waters came in response to demands on the part of Republican congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, who called on the president to “act swiftly and effectively to remove all marine monument fishing prohibitions.” He was also acting in support of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed a lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of fishing groups who accused Obama of overreach, claiming that the Antiquities Act only gives the president power to designate land, not ocean, as a national monument, and that the area designated—which is roughly 40 percent of that of the original proposal—is not confined to the smallest area necessary. The scientific evidence in support of marine sanctuaries was also called into question, but in December 2019 a federal appeals court upheld Obama’s designation and the veracity of the research of more than 145 top U.S. marine scientists who lobbied for protections for the monument. Tim Malley of Blue Harvest Fisheries in New Bedford says Trump’s decision is “welcome news” for the approximately eighty boats that regularly fished the monument.
However, environmental groups state that a $90 billion commercial fishing industry that cannot set aside 1.5 percent of federal waters in the Atlantic for the fish population to regenerate is essentially robbing its own bank. The National Wildlife Federation, Environmental League of Massachusetts, Environmental Council of Rhode Island and Audubon Society of Rhode Island have shot back with a federal lawsuit. Sean Mahoney, director of the Maine chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation, has also promised to fight Trump’s ruling, stating, “The only body that has the authority to change the boundaries, conditions, the terms that govern a national monument is the Congress.”
On Nantucket, the Select Board stands unified behind local conservationists who are working together with Massachusetts state senator Julian Cyr to push for more protective measures of Nantucket’s coastal waters and Cape Cod’s fishing stocks, even as Trump seeks to dismantle them. “We call it ‘Cape Cod,’ but when is the last time you or anyone else you know has heard of someone catching a codfish on Nantucket?” asks Tobias Glidden, co-owner of ACK Smart Energy and an eighth-generation Nantucket native who descends from a long line of fishermen and fishmongers. “I’m not an old man—I’m thirty-two—and I used to catch herring at the second bridge in Madaket, but there are no herring running through those bridges anymore because the net-draggers are catching them all before they can come in to spawn.”
Glidden insists that commercial fishermen should not use gear that harms the environment, and consumers should be looking locally for their daily catch. “We should be promoting the livelihoods of small-scale, local fishermen,” he said, “and not be beholden to international corporations who are mining our two hundred miles of ocean, taking twenty million pounds of squid and dumping eight million pounds of bycatch, including herring and striped bass, dead, into the water.”
For those of us who will never see the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the sheltered crescent of Nantucket Harbor is the end of the seaward journey. But beyond the barrier beaches of Coatue and the tranquil inner harbor, the shifting sands of the south shore give way to the rips and banks of the treacherous Nantucket Shoals, the Great South Channel and the Georges Bank, an expanse of elevated prehistoric sea floor roughly the size of Massachusetts, flanked by ancient sub-oceanic canyons and extinct volcanoes that are home to a host of both familiar and seldom-seen species—an otherworldly place beyond this faraway land that many agree is worth protecting.