Just over 30 days ago, the fishing vessel Eagle Eye left federal waters more than 130 miles southeast of Massachusetts to make the 15- to 20-hour trip home to New Bedford Harbor. Its sister vessel, Eagle Eye 2, returned even more recently, with each carrying thousands of pounds of fresh tuna and a bit of swordfish. 

John Cafiero, captain of one of the Fairhaven-based vessels, said he and his crew sometimes take multiple trips in the summer to fish in waters that in 2016 were established as a national marine monument. Tuna and swordfish are highly migratory species so sometimes “you don’t want to be in there,” he said, but for the past few years, it has been “really good.” 

Cafiero said he didn’t know it then, but that trip might have been his last in the area.

On Oct. 8, President Joe Biden issued a presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906 prohibiting commercial fishing in an area of water the size of Connecticut. 

The administration cited conservation efforts needed to preserve the “vulnerable” deep marine ecosystems and endangered marine species that inhabit or migrate through the waters. The proclamation restores the commercial fishing restrictions first established by former President Barack Obama in 2016, when he declared two areas of water from surface to seabed as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. 

Map of the national marine monument. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Environmental groups lauded the decision. But local fishermen, business owners and industry advocates said the closure deals yet another blow to a highly regulated industry and is unfair as recreational fishing in the monument may continue. 

“These boats are more like your uncle’s pizza shop or your dad’s gas station,” said Mike Machado, lead buyer at Boston Sword & Tuna and a former New Bedford fisherman. “They’re small individual companies. They’re not like this big, evil fishing juggernaut.”

Machado and others in the industry said the fishing fleet has dwindled over the years and that maybe a dozen to 15 vessels actively fish for swordfish and tuna in the monument for a few months out of the year — and not every year. Because the species are highly migratory, sometimes the fishermen will be outside the monument, following the fish where they go. 

Cafiero said about 75% of their income over recent years has likely come from fish caught in the monument. Asked if they could fish elsewhere, the Eagle Eye captain and crew said yes, but that the monument area has historically been where a lot of the money is. 

If they fish near the monument, they said they would have to allow for extra space due to currents that can cause their lines to drift. Because their vessels and activity are monitored digitally and through human observers, they said the government acts quickly and could fine or penalize them if they do not move their gear out. 

Putnam Maclean, owner of Eagle Eye and Eagle Eye 2 since the 1980s, said the cost of fuel has increased significantly and that avoiding the monument area could mean farther and more costly fishing trips. He used to own four vessels but said it has been too costly to manage, maintain or repair all of them amid industry regulations.

The country’s regional fishery management councils have submitted letters to federal leadership since 2016, including Obama, expressing concern about the monument. 

Certain members of the regional fishery management councils, appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, have a range of backgrounds, including commercial and recreational fishing, maritime law, science and environmental conservation. 

Waves crash in the sea off of Hydrographer Canyon. Credit: Brent Brodeur

Asked if they could fish elsewhere, the Eagle Eye captain and crew said yes, but that the monument area has historically been where a lot of the money is. 

“Designations of marine national monuments that prohibit fishing activities — especially those that did not receive adequate economic and social impact review and did not allow for a robust public review process — have disrupted the ability of the Councils to manage fisheries throughout their range,” the councils wrote in a 2017 letter to then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

The councils said the monument designation can be “counterproductive” to fishery management goals, negatively impact job and recreational opportunities, and shift fishing to less sustainable practices. 

The White House this month stated restoring the monument will expand the opportunity for scientific study and exploration and protect and preserve natural resources threatened by varied uses and climate change. 

The monument consists of approximately 4,913 square miles that contain “fragile and largely pristine deep marine ecosystems” that are rich in biodiversity, according to NOAA Fisheries, including deep-sea corals and endangered whales and sea turtles.

The reinstatement of the commercial fishing ban was lauded by environmental groups and institutions, such as the New England Aquarium, which categorized commercial fishing as a “harmful” human activity in the monument. 

Key decisions on marine national monument

  • Sept. 15, 2016: President Barack Obama establishes the marine national monument and a commercial fishing ban within the monument area. Fishermen in the deep-sea red crab and lobster industries are given an exemption of seven years to phase out their operations in the monument. Recreational fishing may continue.
  • June 5, 2020: President Donald Trump amends Obama’s proclamation, restoring some of the fishery management councils’ authority to regulate fishing in those waters and allowing commercial fishing once again.
  • July 26, 2021:  New England Fishery Management Council’s Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment takes effect to reduce the impacts of fishing gear on deep-sea corals south of Georges Bank. It includes an exemption for the deep-sea red crab fishery. The council worked on the coral protections for several years.
  • Oct. 8, 2021: President Joe Biden issues a proclamation that reinstates Obama’s proclamation. The commercial fishing ban is adopted again with the same exemption for lobster and red crab commercial fishing, which is set to expire in 2023. Recreational fishing may continue.
Credit: Anastasia Lennon

Gib Brogan, senior campaign manager at Oceana, said researchers have determined the monument is an “oasis in the middle of the ocean” with high biodiversity. He said the protections are founded and necessary to protect the area from the threats posed by commercial fishing, including bycatch. 

Brogan also said analysis shows the impact to the fisheries has been minimal. 

The local fishermen disagreed, saying bycatch is rare for longlining and that there is a significant economic impact. 

“We just worked our bodies to the ground for nothing …That’s where the money is. So it’s like they’re kicking us while we’re down,” said Brent Brodeur, the butcher on the Eagle Eye. “Now I gotta tell my son Christmas ain’t gonna be that good.”

Machado said the economic impact goes beyond the vessels, as the boats use local resources like fuel, food, mechanics, shipyards and ice.

Chuck Schloss, captain of Eagle Eye 2, said all of New England, New York City and down to Washington, D.C., enjoy the fresh fish they catch.

“We want to keep it local,” said Janet Jorgensen, an Eagle Eye crew member and former captain. “We just enjoy the fact that we can bring a product in.” 

The monument decision could also harm the Atlantic deep-sea red crab fishery, which has only four active boats, according to the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), which also manages the fishery. 

Despite the small size, it is a fishery that will be “deeply impacted” because the canyons and slope within the monument area are “vital to the fishery’s operation,” said Janice Plante, public affairs officer for NEFMC.

The Eagle Eye in Hydrographer Canyon, west of the monument. Credit: Chuck Schloss

Jon Williams, owner of The Atlantic Red Crab Co. in New Bedford, said “it’s definitely a major blow” to his business, which employs about 150 people.

His concern is that elsewhere, the vessel will need to increase its effort through time and resources to meet the same quota. 

He has fished on and off in the monument area since 1995 and said the company spends about three months per year in the monument, on average, with one vessel there at a time. Williams said they touch less than half of one percent of the monument area.

Before Biden issued this proclamation, the New England and Mid-Atlantic fishery councils had already established wide-ranging coral protections beyond the monument. The New England council’s coral amendment, which took effect in July of this year, covers 25,153 square miles, including 82% of the monument, according to the council.

The coral protections established an exemption for the red crab fishery to continue fishing. The new proclamation, however, supersedes that and will prohibit red crab fishing in the monument (which overlaps with the council’s coral protection area) when the federal exemption for red crab and lobster fishing phases out in September of 2023.

“The Council worked hard to walk that fine line between providing strong habitat and coral protections in the area while balancing the social and economic impacts to the industry,” said NEFMC Executive Director Tom Nies in a 2020 statement. 

“We don’t think the recent criticism from the environmental community since the announcement of the second monument proclamation is entirely warranted,” he said, referencing Trump’s decision to allow commercial fishing again. “Existing fishery management measures provide strong protections … and with the Coral Amendment, we’re preventing commercial fishing from expanding beyond its historical footprint.”

The scallop industry does not operate in the monument, but prohibition could force the red crab and offshore lobster fisheries onto scalloping grounds and create a conflict with gear between local fisheries “where none needs to exist,” said Bob Vanasse of Saving Seafood, a seafood industry advocacy group.

Williams said it might not force the red crab fishery into scallop grounds, but it would definitely do so for the lobster fishery. Most of the water within the canyons area is too deep for scallop fishing, but it has occurred directly north of the monument, Plante said. 

Vanasse said he was disappointed by the Biden administration’s decision, and that industry leaders had requested a two- to three-year moratorium on the fishing ban in the monument to enable studies on conditions before, during and after commercial fishing closures before further action.

Mayor Jon Mitchell in a statement said, “it didn’t have to be this way.”  

“Had the original proposal been subjected to the same degree of scientific analysis and industry input as ordinary fisheries regulations, the eventual decision would have been more credible,” he said. “In the future, the conserving of ocean habitats should be left exclusively to NOAA’s regulatory processes, which are set up to carefully balance ecological risks and the economic interests of commercial fishermen and fishing communities.”  

The Eagle Eye vessels will head near the monument once more before they go south this winter, Maclean said. He had planned to possibly send them back to the monument, but he and others are operating on the assumption that the proclamation took effect immediately. 

“We deserve more for hurting for that $80 plate (of tuna) … it came from us pulling it out of the water by hand … It came straight from Fairhaven, straight to the plate and it hurt my hands to do it,” Brodeur said. “Hurting, doing this job for me, is nothing compared to the actual big picture of it. Like I’m a fisherman, that’s a cool title to have, and I want to keep that. I want my son to have that.”

Contact Anastasia E. Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

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