Protections Removed for Atlantic Puffins’ Winter Home

Pres. Trump to allow commercial fishing in the Atlantic Coast’s only marine national monument.

Last Friday—on World Environment Day, amidst a global pandemic, economic instability, and a national crisis driven by police brutality and systemic racism—President Trump signed a proclamation to open the Atlantic Coast’s only marine monument, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing. This monument protects unique deep-water canyons and corals and serves as a critical winter home for seabirds, namely Atlantic Puffins.

In 2016, Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program was instrumental to uncovering that populations of Atlantic Puffins rely on this monument to stock up on fish in winter months. This discovery helped establish the monument and draw its boundaries to adequately protect Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds. In 2019, Audubon filed a friend-of-the-court brief in defense of the monument last year, and in December, the U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Audubon and our partners and dismissed the fishing industry’s appeal. This new order ignores both the ruling of the court, and the science that says we need more—not fewer—protections to help seabirds thrive.

Since 1950, 70 percent of seabirds have declined on a global scale from threats due to harmful fishing practices, contamination, oil spills, habitat disturbance, and more. Allowing commercial fishing within the boundaries of the monument will make seabirds more susceptible to being hooked or netted, and threaten important fish species as well. The monument is home to a plethora of diverse fish species of all ages and sizes, and many of those fish migrate to coastal waters, benefitting seabirds in and beyond the monument. Seabirds thrive when there’s enough smaller fish to eat—forage fish and/or juvenile fish—and safe spaces to forage. A reduction in forage fish in the monument would force seabirds to travel farther and expend more energy to find their meals and feed their young.

The Trump administration claims the decision to roll back protections will boost jobs and grow the fishing economy in the wake of COVID-19. But as Maine Governor Janet Mills pointed out in her statement Friday, "Rolling back a national monument 35 miles southeast of Cape Cod—one that is currently open to commercial fishing according to NOAA—is not going to help the vast majority of Maine fishermen feed their families."

In fact, the monument hasn’t been heavily fished much due to remoteness and depth. For example, from 2014 to 2015, only four vessels relied on the monument for 25 percent of their yearly revenues, and the rest generated less than 5 percent from fishing in the monument. Additionally, protecting this coral habitat far out in the ocean now actually benefits fishermen, because it allows fish populations to thrive and spill out into areas that are more easily accessible by boat. Banning commercial fishing was meant to protect this important habitat from future fishing, when new technology developments would allow more boats to fish at the distance and depth of the monument.

Additionally, as ocean temperatures are increasing and the ocean is becoming more acidic, monuments like this one help boost marine wildlife populations. For seabirds specifically, climate change threatens every step of their life cycle, from sea-level rise drowning nesting islands to ocean warming causing their prey to move deeper and further north. While ocean acidification and warming are of course still a threat within the boundaries of a marine monument, the protections from fishing, mining, and shipping that monuments provide help seabirds and other wildlife by offering a refuge free from these stressors.

Rolling back protections for this important monument will have consequences for seabirds, commercial fishing, and its unique underwater canyons, and this could not come at a worse time in our nation’s history.