With the world's oceans more severely threatened than ever before, President Donald Trump's Interior Department is recommending even less protection for the fraction of ocean life the U.S. has guarded from commercial fishing and other activities in recent years.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has proposed that three ocean monuments in the Pacific and Atlantic be opened up to commercial fishing, shrinking the protected areas to undetermined sizes. Critics see no reason to give less protection to underwater life, with Jane Lubchenco, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), arguing, "There are plenty of other places in the ocean to fish."
"These 'blue parks' harbor unique species, a wealth of biodiversity and special habitats," Lubchenco told the Guardian on Tuesday. "They are undersea treasures. I fervently hope that these incredible marine monuments will not be degraded by opening them up to extractive activities."
The monuments that Zinke recommends altering include the water surrounding the Pacific Remote Islands, whose protected area was expanded to more than 490,000 square miles by President Barack Obama. The monument is now the largest protected marine area on Earth, with the Fish & Wildlife Service calling it "the last refugia for fish and wildlife species rapidly vanishing from the remainder of the planet." Zinke would also allow commercial fishing in parts of the South Pacific's Rose Atoll and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic.
The three monuments combined are more than three times the size of California, but are just a fraction of the world's marine area—which scientists say are in more danger than ever thanks to rising temperatures, rampant plastic pollution, the bleaching of coral reefs, over-fishing, and noise pollution from the shipping and tourism industries. The regions also account for a very small portion of the United States' waters.
"It shouldn't be too much to ask to protect two percent of the U.S.'s exclusive economic zone off the Atlantic coast for future generations," Peter Baker of Pew Charitable Trusts said of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monuments. "Allowing commercial fishing there is really a distortion of why you would have a national monument in the first place."
Commercial fishing groups have fought against the protection of the monuments for years, while conservation advocates and marine scientists argue that allowing marine wildlife to thrive unthreatened by humans in specific parts of the ocean is actually helpful to the fishing industry.
"Invalidating this management is nothing short of irresponsible and flies in the face of best science," Robert Richmond, a marine ecologist at the University of Hawaii told the Guardian. "It's a race to the bottom, for the short-term gain of the fishing industry but to their long-term cost."
Critics are also concerned that opening the waters to fishing could pave the way to eventually allowing fossil fuel companies to drill in the monuments—a major concern of opponents to Trump's plan to shrink national monuments on dry land.