PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Environmental groups that want to save a marine monument created by former President Barack Obama in the Atlantic Ocean off New England's coast are asking to intervene in a federal lawsuit that challenges its creation.
They say the nearly 5,000-square-mile monument area has "extraordinary scientific and ecological importance," including its rare deep-sea corals and endangered whales.
Obama created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in September using the Antiquities Act. It restricts access to fishing areas, and commercial fishing groups filed the lawsuit this month in federal court in Washington, D.C.
"It's an extraordinarily important ocean park, and the first such monument in the Atlantic, and we want to have a role in defending it," Brad Sewell, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, said Thursday.
The NRDC and others filed the motion Wednesday to intervene in the case. The groups include the Conservation Law Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity and naturalist R. Zack Klyver, of Bar Harbor, Maine.
The Trump administration will have until mid-June to respond to the fishermen's lawsuit.
The monument has become a much-debated piece of Obama's legacy, facing scrutiny from Republican lawmakers, officials in coastal cities and fishery managers as well as fishermen. Leaders of eight regional councils that manage fisheries reached out to President Donald Trump this month to say the monument's creation disrupted their ability to manage seafood resources.
The lawsuit hinges on the interpretation of the Antiquities Act, which allows the preservation of lands and not oceans, said Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the fishermen.
"Monument designations in the ocean, if they are legal, are and will be huge," he said. "It will undermine the ability to sustainably regulate fisheries. It forces fishermen to concentrate in the areas that are left."
The monument was the first of its kind created in the Atlantic, and the first off of the continental U.S. The federal government manages four marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean — relatively new creations with the first established under President George W. Bush.
This story has been corrected to show the Trump administration has until mid-June to respond to the fishermen's lawsuit, not the environmental group's motion.