Human Journey

Letter-writers make history: President Obama declares first Atlantic Ocean National Monument

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Shearwater soaring at sunrise over the Great South Channel. Credit: Erica Cirino

When President Obama established the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument last week, he did something no other U.S. president has done before him: He designated a vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and the topography beneath it as a federally protected area where industrial fishing, energy extraction and other forms of commercial exploitation are prohibited.

This monument is located about 150 miles off the Coast of Cape Cod. It spans 4,900 square miles of ocean and includes a series of underwater canyons carved into the outer continental shelf—some deeper than the Grand Canyon—as well as four seamounts, or underwater mountains that peak more than 7,000 feet above the ocean floor. These waters and geological features are home to hundreds of species of marine creatures, from fish to sea birds to corals to whales to dolphins.

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“Teddy Roosevelt had the foresight to protect the treasures of America’s landscape,” says Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), about the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. “With that same boldness, President Obama is conserving the crown jewels of our nation’s seascape. This historic act will make our ocean more resilient to climate change. By preserving this rich diversity of marine life, it will also support New England’s coastal and ocean economy.”

The creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument comes just weeks after President Obama expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, which is now the largest marine protected in the world. Besides protecting ecologically important marine areas, during his two terms in office Obama has worked toward establishing more sustainable fishing policies, building more resilient coastal cities and coordinating ocean protection with foreign leaders.

Atlantic puffin out at sea. Credit: Project Puffin/Stephen W. Kress
Atlantic puffin out at sea. Credit: Stephen W. Kress, Project Puffin

While several organizations lobbied for a national marine monument in the Atlantic, the NRDC was especially vocal in its support. The NRDC’s push for the monument began in 2001 and ran up until last week when the president announced the establishment of the protected area, dubbed the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. NRDC created online petitions, geospatial analyses, technical research, polling events, media outreach, meetings and a letter-writing campaign, which it promoted with a video featuring several ocean experts, including Carl Safina, founder and President of The Safina Center.

Safina, on behalf of The Safina Center, signed a letter sent to President Obama asking that he create a monument off the U.S. Atlantic coast. It’s an area of the ocean where threatened or endangered species such as corals, loggerhead sea turtles, scalloped hammerhead sharks, sperm whales and North Atlantic right whales live. Industrial activities could mean the demise of these unique creatures.

Sperm whales traveling in a unit. Credit: Kelsey Stone, New England Aquarium
Sperm whales traveling in a unit. Credit: Kelsey Stone, New England Aquarium

Moving forward, it’s important to continue vouching for the environment if we want to continue seeing positive change. According to Safina, every action—no matter how small it seems—matters.

“Sending letters to officials is very boring and most people find it to be too much trouble,” says Safina. “It’s also very important. It’s the only real way they know what is wanted by the people who put them in office or might keep (or delete) them from office.”

Safina acknowledges that voting is important, but that letters are often a more effective way of conveying one’s message to political leaders. He says letters don’t need to be lengthy—they can be as short as just two or three sentences—and can be sent quickly and easily online.

So what are you waiting for? Find something you care about, and get writing! You might just help make history.

An 8-foot tall bubblegum coral, one of many in a forest of colonies this size, grows on a vertical wall in Heezen Canyon. It can take hundreds of years for corals to grow this large. Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition Science Team
An 8-foot tall bubblegum coral, one of many in a forest of colonies this size, grows on a vertical wall in Heezen Canyon. It can take hundreds of years for corals to grow this large. Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition Science Team
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.
  • Kylena Payne

    We must protect every ecosystem, because each one effects the other. Whether beneficially or adversely, we are at a moment of time to choose the outcome. To ignore the matter would be make the choice of destruction.

  • Brandy Hartsell

    I’ll miss Mr. Obama….

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