It’s high season for Vacationland, the time of year when our state’s natural beauty is on full display. But the idyllic summer feels different to me this year because the fate of some of our most special natural places is uncertain.
Most have likely heard that the Trump administration has ordered a review of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited it in June. But we have another nearby monument hanging in the balance, this one off Maine’s shores — the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
Its location makes it difficult to visit, but the underwater scene is no less impressive than iconic places on land. Within the 4,913-square mile marine monument is Bear Seamount, an extinct volcano that rises taller than Mount Washington or any other mountain this side of the Rockies. Nearby are underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon — one of our country’s most beloved national parks, which began as a national monument designated by President Teddy Roosevelt. Should we fail to protect remarkable places just because they are underwater?
Most will never see the life that thrives in the marine monument, but it is rich, abundant and sensitive. Many thousands of feet below the surface, fragile deep-sea corals grow agonizingly slowly over centuries — characteristics that make them vulnerable to disturbance and unlikely to easily recover. The habitats built by these colorful creatures attract fish, whales, sharks and seabirds. Last year, Audubon scientists discovered that endangered Atlantic puffins spend their winters in this area. A few years before, scientists captured an extremely rare sighting of a Greenland shark, a species recently confirmed as the world’s longest-living vertebrate.
Scientifically documented sightings show this area is a hot spot for diverse and numerous marine animals. Last August, in just one day, NOAA scientists recorded numerous sperm whales and beaked whales, as well as 120 fin whales, 70 pilot whales, 50 humpbacks, 2,500 common dolphins, 100 striped dolphins, 80 bottlenose dolphins, 60 Risso’s dolphins and ocean sunfish. It’s easy to see why a marine scientist at the New England Aquarium described this place as “ the Serengeti of the ocean.”
It’s true that we are a visual species, and we overlook what we don’t easily see. But as the head naturalist for Maine’s largest whale watching business, Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., I know the genuine wonder, awe and appreciation that the ocean and its creatures can inspire. My industry depends on a healthy ocean, one in which people can consistently see animals in the wild. And the value of a healthy ocean is not just theoretical. As part of New England’s substantial tourism economy, whale-watching brings in more than $125 million per year, supports local jobs and brings dollars to other parts of our coastal communities.
Having grown up in a fishing family in Eastport, I care deeply about sustainable coastal communities and what makes Maine a special place to live and visit. But objections from fishermen to this monument are misguided. Not only is this area one of the most lightly fished parts in our region — making it an ideal place to set aside — but fishermen even stand to benefit from the new protections.
Science shows closed ocean areas produce more fish and crustaceans, which can be caught by fishermen when they spill over into surrounding areas. Protecting some areas from human impact also helps scientists trying to understand the impact of ocean acidification and climate change — information our fishing communities need for sustaining their businesses in a changing environment.
So far, more than 600,000 people and organizations — including coastal businesses like mine, recreational fishermen, political officials, faith leaders and aquaria — have voiced their support for marine monuments to the Interior and Commerce departments. And last week, the Commerce Department’s public comment period was extended to Aug. 15. With the outcome still uncertain, your voice could make a difference.
Our country’s oceans belong to all citizens, which means decisions about them are made in your name. The vast majority of Americans want healthy abundant oceans, but that doesn’t happen by itself. Make sure your voice is heard. Visit monumentsforall.org/marine to submit your comments before it’s too late.
Zack Klyver is the head naturalist at Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. He is from Eastport.