On his last day in office, former President George W. Bush designated the world’s largest protected marine area in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. He attributed his inspiration for what was called the “single-largest act of ocean conservation in history,” to a documentary series by Jean-Michel Cousteau and “a pretty good lecture about life” from marine biologist Sylvia Earle. Not to be outdone in his home state, former President Obama nearly quadrupled the size of the monument and created the Atlantic Ocean’s first Marine National Monuments.
Both presidents designated the waters using the Antiquities Act of 1906 (Public Law 59–209), a law that gives the president the authority to proclaim national monuments from federal lands to protect natural, cultural, or scientific features. Bipartisan support for marine monuments has faded; however, and Republicans of the Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee of House Natural Resources Committee challenged the use of the law in a hearing last week. Critics argued that the acts by Presidents Bush and Obama represent federal overreach that harms local economies by excluding commercial and recreational activities, such as energy exploration and fishing. They also critiqued the Marine National Monument designation process, which doesn’t allow for public input or a comment period. Chairman Bishop (UT-01) and Representative Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (AS-At Large) took it one step further and sent a joint letter to President Trump ahead of the hearing, requesting the removal of all marine monument fishing prohibitions. Mr. Brian Hallman (Executive Director, American Tunaboat Association) said he was not against limiting activities like drilling or mining in marine monuments but said that reducing fishing “makes no sense whatsoever” because they are managed by other legislative means including the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and international treaties and conventions.
On the opposite side of the dais, committee Democrats called the hearing a “coordinated effort” to undermine the Antiquities Act framed as a defense of fisherman. They claimed monuments have had minimal impacts on the industry and that science shows the reserves protect vulnerable ecosystems, benefit sustainable fisheries, and provide an important buffer against the impacts of climate change. Dr. John Bruno (Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) pointed out that tens of millions of Americans depend on healthy ocean ecosystems for their food and livelihoods. He also listed marine reserves as a proven policy tool that have commercial benefit through increasing the density and diversity of marine organisms, restoring key ecological function and species interactions, and growing population size. Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-3) argued for restrictions, saying that commercial fisheries should be limited “just as there are places that are off-limits to hunting, drilling, mining, driving, smoking, nude sunbathing and other activities that may have negative consequences for society if allowed to occur anywhere.” National Marine Sanctuaries, which are managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), received less criticism during the hearing due to changes in recent years, including a rule passed in 2014 that re-establishes a public nomination process. NOAA is currently hosting public meetings on two proposals, both of which are open to public comment through March 31, 2017.