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A plan announced Thursday that would designate a unique undersea area 150 miles off the New England coast as the nation's first Atlantic marine national monument was met with immediate opposition from commercial fishermen.

Connecticut's congressional delegation, as well as environmental and educational groups, want President Barack Obama to preserve the "New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts" area, which lies along the continental shelf. It includes underwater canyons on the scale of the Grand Canyon, sea mounts that rise as much as 7,700 feet off the sea floor, and a stunning array of oceanic coral and marine species.

Scientists have identified at least 73 different coral species in the region and nearly 1,000 different marine species. Included in that impressive list of creatures that frequent those deep canyons and seamounts is the endangered sperm whale, which happens to be Connecticut's state animal.

The proposal would dramatically restrict commercial fishing in that area and is drawing fierce opposition from commercial fisherman like Stonington's Bobby Guzzo, who owns and operates two boats.

"That's just the government trying to take all our water," Guzzo said Thursday from aboard his fishing vessel. "I'm dead set against it."

Joseph Gilbert's Empire Fisheries operates four fishing boats out of Stonington, and he also has problems with the proposed undersea sanctuary. "Fishermen are conservationists, too," Gilbert said, explaining that he believes the proposal "is well intentioned" but simply "goes too far" without considering the impact on commercial fishing operations and supplies of fish for consumers.

"A lot of these areas are protected already," Gilbert said.

Connecticut's congressional delegation is calling on President Obama to use his executive powers to have the region declared a marine national monument. The intent of the coalition calling for that action is to protect the region from commercial activities that might damage the unique marine ecology and the species that depend upon it.

"The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area, a pristine hotspot of diverse and fragile wildlife and habitats, is deeply deserving of this designation," the delegation's letter to Obama stated. "This area is just as precious as any national park and its riches just as priceless."

Environmental activists and marine scientists joined U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a Thursday morning news conference in New Haven to kick off the campaign to win national marine monument status for the 4,000 square-mile undersea region.

Commercial fishing groups such as the National Coalition for Fishing Communities argue that there already exist federal laws and regulatory commissions that are set up to protect valuable marine resources like those within the proposed marine sanctuary.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for regulating fishing in the region, is also opposed to creation of a protected marine monument off New England's continental shelf. Commercial fishing organizations warn that the plan would hamper fishing for red crab, swordfish, tuna, as well as off-shore lobster fisheries.

Jon Mitchell, mayor of New Bedford, Mass., New England's most important fishing port, has also objected на своем районе статус to the proposal, as has Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

Environmental groups that include the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, the Sierra Club, and the National Resources Defense Council have been pleading for months for a presidential decision in favor of the proposed New England marine monument. The concept also has strong support from educational groups and institutions that include the Mystic Aquarium, which is part of the coalition in favor of the marine monument.

Peter Auster, Mystic Aquarium's senior research scientist, has been a leading figure in scientific studies of the proposed monument area and was present for Thursday's New Haven news conference.

"The designation of the New England Coral Canyon and Seamounts will allow us to continue to study this vulnerable and otherworldly part of our ocean and ultimately educate our visitors with the goal of creating ocean stewards for generations to come," said Stephen M. Coan, president and CEO of Mystic Aquarium.

Peter Baker, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' U.S. Conservation-Northeast, said, "Compelling science shows that these deep canyons and underwater mountains contain rare habitats sustaining an extraordinary diversity of marine life, from corals to whales to seabirds."

"This is a game-changing proposal that will permanently protect the area's precious corals, marine life and vital habitats," said Brad Sewell, director of fisheries and U.S. Atlantic programs for the National Resources Defense Council.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration currently oversees a network of 170,000 square miles of underwater parks ranging from the Great Lakes to the Florida Keys and the Pacific Ocean. There are currently 13 national marine sanctuaries and several marine national monuments covered by the system.

Controversy continues to surround one recent proposal asking Obama to dramatically expand the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off Hawaii. The plan would increase the size of the marine monument and fishing sanctuary from approximately 140,000 square miles to 583,000 square miles. Last month, various officials in Hawaii voiced their opposition to the plan at a rally in Honolulu, warning it would significantly damage their state's fishing industry.



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