National Marine Monument off coast?

The Conservation Law Foundation and other groups have redoubled lobbying efforts to ask the Obama administration to add Cashes Ledge if a National Marine Monument is created in the Atlantic.

The third installment of the Our Ocean forum will convene in Washington, D.C., this week and the betting window is open on whether the Obama administration will use the event to announce the designation of new National Marine Monuments.

No one — neither conservationists nor fishing stakeholders — claims to know exactly what will happen when the two-day, international event opens Thursday. But it has not escaped anyone’s attention that the Obama administration has used the same forum in the past to make similar announcements.

“The short answer is that I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel and interim president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “The Obama administration has been really playing this one close to the vest. But this is the sort of opportunity the White House has used in the past to announce monuments.”

At the inaugural Our Ocean forum in Washington hosted by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in 2014, the United States announced it intended to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to more than 463,300 square miles, or about three times the size of California. The expansion was formalized in September of that year.

In 2015, at the second Our Ocean summit in Valparaiso, Chile, the United States announced it was moving to protect “waters of historic and national importance” by creating the first new National Marine Sanctuaries since 2001 in waters off Maryland and in the Great Lakes.

Anyone for three in a row?

Conservationists and environmental groups certainly are.

The groups were heartened in August when Obama ended a contentious process by more than quadrupling the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument to 582,578 square miles in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, establishing the largest protected area on the planet.

But they were stung in March when, in a victory for fishing stakeholders, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality removed Cashes Ledge, which sits about 80 miles off of Gloucester, from consideration as a possible site for a new National Marine Monument.

The Obama administration’s decision not to use the Antiquities Act to designate any portion of Cashes Ledge as a monument validated fishing stakeholders and others who characterized the proposal — which originated with the Conservation Law Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pew Charitable Trusts — as an end-run around the existing fisheries management system and wholly unnecessary given the existing protections already afforded the area.

Cashes Ledge currently is closed to commercial fishing.

In the wake of that defeat, conservationists redoubled their lobbying efforts, urging Obama to invoke the 1906 Antiquities Act to unilaterally designate a number of potential sites, including canyons and seamounts off southern New England and off the coast of Monterey, California, as Maritime National Monuments.

“All eyes are on the canyons and seamounts,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.

Odell and other fishing stakeholders continue to insist that the use of the Antiquities Act undermines the nation’s traditional system of fisheries and ocean management that are contained within the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act.

They also point out that any designation in southern New England would short-circuit the work of the New England Fishery Management Council, which already has begun work on a coral amendment that would encompass the area of seamounts and canyons off southern New England.

Finally, they raise concerns over the economic impact any new designation would have on a number of fisheries, including lobsters, red crabs, small-mesh, long-line and other trawl fisheries already pushed to the brink of disaster.

Kerry again will host the forum. He is scheduled to deliver a welcome and opening remarks on Thursday. It’s safe to say that anyone interested in the National Marine Monument issue will be listening closely to what the secretary of state has to say.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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