Aquarium scientist helps lead effort to designate Marine National Monument

Mystic — An effort being led in part by Mystic Aquarium Senior Research Scientist Peter Auster is working to get President Barack Obama to designate a 4,000-square-nautical-mile area of ocean off Cape Cod as a Marine National Monument, which would be the first in the Atlantic Ocean.

Auster, who has been exploring the area known as the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area for three decades, said last week that it is home to majestic 12,000-foot-tall peaks, deep canyons, 9-feet-tall corals and species of marine life that have not yet been named.

“This is a place in one of the most studied parts of the ocean where you can still find big animals that don’t have names yet,” he said. “We’re still figuring out what species are there and how they interact with each other.”

Located 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, it is also a place that Auster said companies are beginning to show interest in mining the seamounts for precious metals.

Those seamounts, or underwater mountains, summit 3,000 feet below the surface.

Designation of the area as a national monument would prevent “commercial extraction activities” such as mining, oil and gas drilling, as well as commercial fishing. Activities such as recreational angling, whale watching and boating would be permitted.

Auster has been part of explorations of the area using manned and remotely operated vehicles and said looking out a porthole at the seamounts and canyons is like “looking into Dr. Seuss’s garden” with sponges and coral forests.

Having seen the degradation of undersea habitats due to fishing, climate change and development, Auster said the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area habitats are “profoundly beautiful, otherworldly places that, unfortunately, are highly sensitive to disturbance” and are “deserving of protection.”

Earlier this year, Auster and New England Aquarium Vice President Scott Kraus completed a scientific analysis of this area focusing on its biological diversity, which ranges from strange creatures that live in the cold and dark depths to tuna, whales and sea turtles that live near the surface.

Working with environmental groups, they are working to get the designation request to Obama to sign before he leaves office.

Meanwhile the Mystic Aquarium is working to build support for the effort providing a link on its Facebook page to an online petition and downloadable comment cards while providing a table in the aquarium’s main gallery for visitors to support the effort.

The federal Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president the authority to proclaim sites as national monuments in order to protect them. President Theodore Roosevelt declared Devil’s Tower in Wyoming the first national monument in 1906.

There are now 150 sites ranging from the well known, such as the Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon, Denali and Fort McHenry, to the lesser known, such as Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality, the Dry Tortugas and Rose Atoll.

President George W. Bush was the first president to designate a marine national monument, going on to protect four areas in the Pacific Ocean.

No marine monuments have yet been established off the continental 48 states.

Auster said presidents have looked at designating national monuments as “a gift to current and future generations.”

“It’s the essential American thing to do. Presidents of both parties have used the tools of conservation to expand the collection of places that are representative of all our nation’s resources,” he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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