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What You Should Know

The Coral Canyons and Seamounts & New England’s Undersea Treasures

A guide explaining what we stand to preserve by establishing these areas in the Atlantic Ocean as a marine National Monument.

What You Should Know About

The Coral Canyons and Seamounts & New England’s Undersea Treasures

A guide explaining what we stand to gain by establishing these areas in the Atlantic Ocean as a marine National Monument.

Evan Kovacs
Cashes Ledge, near the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, contains the largest continuous kelp forest in the northeast shelf of the United States.
Update: March 29, 2017

A review of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument by the Interior Department is currently underway, following an executive order issued April 26. Earthjustice is already in court to protect this rare underwater national monument from a commercial fishing industry lawsuit. "There is no question that President Obama met all legal requirements in carefully designing this monument to protect its rare deep-sea canyons and seamounts, and that he appropriately exercised the authority provided to him by Congress to protect and preserve this national treasure for generations to come," explained Earthjustice attorney Roger Fleming. Read more and take action to defend the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument.

What’s special about the Coral Canyons and Seamounts?

Centuries-old cold-water corals are the foundation of this deep-sea ecosystem. The four seamounts in Coral Canyons and Seamounts are the only ones found in U.S. Atlantic waters.

Deepwater corals on the western wall of Oceanographer Canyon.
NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
Deepwater corals on the western wall of Oceanographer Canyon.
On Mytilus Seamount, a bamboo coral is attached to the black basalt rock formed by a now-extinct undersea volcano. The yellow animals on the coral are crinoids, or sea lilies, in the same major group of animals as sea stars.  The summit of Mytilus Seamount is 8,800 ft below the surface of the ocean.
NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition Science Team
On Mytilus Seamount, a bamboo coral is attached to the black basalt rock formed by a now-extinct undersea volcano. The yellow animals on the coral are crinoids, or sea lilies, in the same major group of animals as sea stars. The summit of Mytilus Seamount is 8,800 ft below the surface of the ocean.
Paramuriceid seafan (octocoral) in Oceanographer Canyon.
NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
Paramuriceid seafan (octocoral) in Oceanographer Canyon.
  • Paramuriceid seafan (octocoral) in Oceanographer Canyon.
    NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
    Paramuriceid seafan (octocoral) in Oceanographer Canyon.
  • On Mytilus Seamount, a bamboo coral is attached to the black basalt rock formed by a now-extinct undersea volcano.
    NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition Science Team
    On Mytilus Seamount, a bamboo coral is attached to the black basalt rock formed by a now-extinct undersea volcano. The yellow animals on the coral are crinoids. The summit of Mytilus Seamount is 8,800 ft below the surface of the ocean.
  • Deepwater corals on the western wall of Oceanographer Canyon.
    NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
    Deepwater corals on the western wall of Oceanographer Canyon.

Like their more well-known warm-water cousins of the Caribbean and the Great Barrier Reef, cold-water coral communities provide food, spawning habitat, and shelter for masses of fish and invertebrate species. Distinct from tropical corals, cold-water corals do not rely on symbiotic algae to survive; their polyps feed on food particles from the surrounding water. Specimens of deep-water black corals have been dated to more than 4,000 years old, making them the oldest known marine organism.

Seamounts—undersea mountains—are nutrient-rich environments: biological oases of marine life that punctuate the desert expanse of the deep sea floor.

Among this area, upwellings of deep, cold water bring nutrients to the lower echelons of the food chain: plankton, schools of squid, and forage fish. This concentration in turn nurtures the behemoths of the ocean, including sharks, sperm whales and the North Atlantic right whale, which are all abundant in these waters.

Sperm whale.
Photo by Barry Gutradt / Bar Harbor Whale Watch. Map courtesy of Scott Kraus and Brooke Wikgren / New England Aquarium
A sperm whale. The inset map illustrates total numbers of whales and dolphins found in the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, from 1963 to 2014. Hot spots for concentrations of whales and dolphins dot the shelf-edge. Larger map
Where are the Coral Canyons and Seamounts?

The Coral Canyons and Seamounts are 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument will protect 4,913 square miles, an area nearly the size of Connecticut and covering 1.5 percent of U.S. federal waters on the East Coast.

Boundary Map of Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
© 2016 The Pew Charitable Trusts
Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument: The protected area, encompassing 4,913 square miles, encompasses three canyons (Oceanographer, Gilbert, or Lydonia) and four seamounts (Bear, Physalia, Mytilus and Retriever).
Was there a need to act now to protect the Coral Canyons and Seamounts?

Yes.

With technology advancements, the deep ocean is becoming more accessible than ever to oil and gas exploration and industrial fishing.

If these marine reserves are not placed under permanent protection now, they are at risk of being destroyed by resource extraction activities, such as bottom-scouring fishing gear. With these areas will go some of our best hopes for restoring ecosystems that have been devastated by overfishing and development.

The white tentacled sea anemone shown here would take over 200 years to bounce back from disturbance like bottom trawling. Cashes Ledge has unusually high diversity and density of bottom-living animals, including sea anemones, encrusting sponges, bryozoans and sea squirts..
Jon Witman
The white tentacled sea anemone shown here would take more than 200 years to bounce back from disturbance like bottom trawling. Cashes Ledge has unusually high diversity and density of bottom-living animals, including sea anemones, encrusting sponges, bryozoans and sea squirts.
What was the best way of protecting these areas?
Courtesy of Michael Conathan / Center for American Progress
Watch a short clip of Pres. Obama's announcement at the Our Ocean conference. See full speech

By designating them as a National Monument. On September 15, President Obama announced the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the first major marine National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean to permanently protect the abundance of life in these areas. The monument will protect 4,913 square miles of marine ecosystems around a series of four deep-water seamounts and three canyons in Georges Bank, about 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (Read a fact sheet about the National Monument.)

"Protecting special places like this provides an especially important buffer against the impacts of climate change," said Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen, in reaction to the news.

What is a National Monument?

Federally owned areas (which can include geographical areas, buildings, statues) of historic or scientific interest. Almost half of our National Parks were first designated as National Monuments. The overriding management goal for a National Monument is protection of the area. Places can be designated through Congressional legislation or by Presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

There are more than 120 National Monuments, most of them on land. Prior to the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, there were four marine National Monuments, all in the Pacific Ocean: Mariana Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll, and Papahānaumokuākea.

On August 26, President Barack Obama, under the Antiquities Act, expanded Papahānaumokuākea National Monument, which was initially designated by President George W. Bush. Seamounts are also found in this area, which is home to some of the healthiest coral reefs still alive today. With the expansion, it became the largest protected area in the world.

Who supports the National Monument designation?
Evan Kovacs
A jellyfish and luminescent fish swim through Cashes Ledge.

The Connecticut Congressional delegation, led by Senator Richard Blumenthal, called on the Obama administration in August to permanently protect the Coral Canyons and Seamounts by declaring them a National Monument.

Additionally, more than 200 marine scientists, educators, business owners, surfers, members of faith-based organizations, and the region’s leading aquaria and conservation organizations—including Earthjustice, National Geographic Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pew Charitable Trusts, and Conservation Law Foundation—also voiced their support.

And, more than 300,000 people from across the country have sent messages to President Obama in support of a proclamation to designate these areas as a National Monument.

Tens of thousands of Earthjustice members were among those who sent letters, including:

As an active AAUS-authorized Scientific Diver since 2002, working with and for UC Davis' Bodega Marine Lab, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, and ReefCheck CA, I have been sad witness to the decline of, and stress on many marine species, and the degradation of the California coastal marine environment.
We, as a society and nation, are neglecting in profound ways the very systems that sustain life on this planet; if we choose not to act, following generations will suffer for our hubris.
– Gregg, South Pasadena, CA
I live on Cape Cod and have seen flounder all but disappear in Cape Cod Bay. I have seen the population of lobsters and cod plummet.
Please create a marine national monument in New England to preserve our heritage.
– Jonathan, Harwich, MA
I grew up enjoying the treasures of the New England Coast. I was thrilled and proud when John F. Kennedy created the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, preserving from development this ecosystem for me—and later for my children and grandchildren.
Now it's time to make history. You have my full support and will have the thanks of generations!
– Carolyn, Culver City, CA
As a scuba diver, I've seen what a difference protected underwater spaces can mean as a living space for hundreds of varieties of fish and marine wildlife.
Such an area can make all the difference in whether many species of marine life will even survive considering the challenges of overfishing, underwater mining, and dead zones. Please help us maintain the diversity of life that is so critical to the health of our planet.
– Johanna, Rockville, MD
Why should these areas be designated as a National Monument?

A fortunate combination of partial fishing restrictions and natural protective features has kept the Coral Canyons and Seamounts unusually free of human disturbance to date. The National Monument designation will permanently protect these areas from industrial exploitation.

Our country has a long tradition of protecting our remarkable natural heritage and biological bounty.

But in contrast to our lands and the Pacific Ocean where expansive areas have been protected, our rich Atlantic waters have not received the same level of recognition. It's time now to change that, before irreparable damage is done.

This pompom anemone is part of the seafloor community on the summit of Physalia Seamount and is rarely seen.
NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition Science Team
This pompom anemone, part of the seafloor community on the summit of Physalia Seamount, is rarely seen. While it looks like a plant, it is in fact an animal. It uses its tentacles to sting and subdue its prey, and then transfers it to a central mouth.
Are there other valuable areas in the Atlantic that could also benefit from being designated as a National Monument?

Yes.

Cashes Ledge, 80 miles southeast of Portland, Maine, is the “Yellowstone of the North Atlantic,” says marine biologist Sylvia Earle. This is one of the last places where cod and pollock still thrive, carrying the hope for restoring these iconic New England fish that are the lifeblood of many coastal communities.

Evan Kovacs
The kelp forest in Cashes Ledge, one of the largest in the world. The canopy extends up to 6 meters above the seafloor, creating a dense jungle of life. It is a nursery habitat for many species and a source of food for the invertebrates that fish eat.

The abundance of life in Cashes Ledge has been described as a window into “an ecosystem past” that has all but disappeared from New England's Atlantic, the result of decades of overfishing.

Schools of bluefin tuna and dolphins make their way through Cashes Ledge. Sea turtles ply the waters, as do many species of whales.

The peak of Cashes Ledge, known as Ammen Rock, reaches to just below ocean's surface. It is massive enough to disrupt the Gulf of Maine current, creating unique conditions of nutrient- and oxygen-rich water that feeds a cascade of life.

It is home to one of the largest kelp forests in the world—and the largest on the Atlantic seaboard.

Kelp are ecosystem engineers, building towering underwater forests that, just like their counterparts on land, feed and shelter a vast array of life.