WASHINGTON- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has extended the deadline for people to comment on the planned review of 11 marine sanctuaries and monuments that could lead to downsizing of protected waters from California to American Samoa.
The comment deadline originally was Wednesday before midnight, but NOAA said Wednesday evening that it will accept comments through Aug. 14 because of “public interest and requests for additional time.”
The review is part of President Donald Trump’s America-First Offshore Energy Strategy executive order in April, which seeks to “encourage energy exploration and production, including on the Outer Continental Shelf.” The order said that the Department of Commerce — which oversees NOAA — should evaluate the designations and expansions of marine sanctuaries and monuments that have occurred over the past 10 years.
While there has been much attention on threatened monuments undergoing a separate review by the Interior Department, there are also a number of marine sanctuaries and marine monuments at risk. The order encompasses six protected areas that were either expanded or established under the Obama administration, including Northeast Canyons and Seamounts — the first national monument established in the Atlantic Ocean. Located off the coast of New England, it protects close to 5,000 square miles of underwater sea canyons and mountains in addition to deep-sea corals, sea turtles and whales.
The other five sites under review were designated or enlarged under George W. Bush, such as the Rose Atoll national monument in American Samoa. The 13,451 square miles of protected land and water around the coral reef contain nesting spots for 12 species of federally-protected seabirds, 140 species of coral, and 270 types of fish.
Under the executive order, the review is to include an analysis of the cost of managing each site, whether federal, state or tribal consultations prior to its designation or expansion were adequate, and “the opportunity costs associated with potential energy and mineral exploration and production from the Outer Continental Shelf.”
The review has sparked angry responses from environmental groups and Democratic leaders across the country. On Tuesday 65 congressmen sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, urging him to maintain protections of the 11 sites.
“These protected areas reduce the impacts of human activities on marine ecosystems, protect rare and endangered species, increase the productivity of surrounding fisheries, and help maintain local cultures, economies, and livelihoods that depend on the marine environment,” the letter states. “The wealth of benefits from protected sanctuaries and monuments far outweigh any potential benefits of expanding oil and gas development off our coasts.”
The letter cites prior studies from NOAA and the Department of Commerce showing that collectively the marine sanctuaries generate $8 billion annually from activities like commercial fishing, research and tourism. In California, nearly one third of commercial fish come from sanctuaries, generating 1,840 jobs across 15 counties.
To date, 67,452 comments have been submitted on regulations.gov. Ross has until Oct. 25 to submit the final report. The Department of Commerce declined to comment on the review process.