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Obama to Create First Marine National Monument in the Atlantic

The monument will protect 4,913 square miles that encompass three deep sea canyons and four underwater mountains.
Corals on Mytilus Seamount off the coast of New England in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Corals on Mytilus Seamount off the coast of New England in the North Atlantic Ocean.NOAA via AP file

President Barack Obama on Thursday will establish the first national marine monument in the Atlantic, declaring nearly 5,000 square miles off the New England coastline a fully protected area.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument will protect 4,913 square miles that encompass three deep sea canyons and four underwater mountains. The area is home to rare deep sea corals, endangered whales and some species found nowhere else on the planet.

Corals on Mytilus Seamount off the coast of New England in the North Atlantic Ocean.NOAA via AP file

“If we are going to leave our children with oceans like the ones that were left to us, then we’re gonna have to act and we are going to have to act boldly,” President Obama said at the Our Ocean Conference at the State Department on Thursday.

The president also talked about growing up in Hawaii and seeing the ocean’s magic and the fear it could inspire.

“I spent my childhood on those shores looking out over the endless ocean and was humbled by it,” Obama told the audience.

The move comes just weeks after the president created the world's largest marine protected area by expanding a national monument off the coast of Hawaii. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, originally declared by President George W. Bush in 2006, encompasses nearly 600,000 square miles.

Related: What Is an Ocean Garbage Patch?

The White House says it is taking action off New England's coast due to concerns over warming ocean temperatures that could impact lobster, scallops and salmon. A study released by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projected temperatures warming three times faster than the global average. Officials believe the designation will help build the resilience of this ecosystem.

But many fishermen are unhappy about the designation. In November 2015, Jon Williams, president of the Atlantic Red Crab Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts, wrotelivelihoods could be devastated” and insisted the waters around the monument are pristine and a model for conservation successes.

At a hearing for the House Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee last year, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., also expressed concern.

“We can all relate to the issue when a president abuses the Antiquities Act as a means to shut off multiple uses of lands and waters. This is a tool that President Obama has used more than any other American president to date.”

U.S. Marine National Monuments Superintendent Matt Brown gives President Barack Obama a tour of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on Sept. 1.JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters file

Senior administration officials say the impact would be limited to six lobster boats, twenty mobile boats and any red crab fishing boats in the area. In order to minimize the impact, officials said, lobster and red crab fishermen will get a seven-year grace period to leave the area, and the boundaries of the monument were narrowly tailored.

They say they have engaged with businesses and stakeholders and feel justified in their approach.

The official announcement of the new Atlantic monument came during Obama's speech at Our Ocean Conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. The White House expects twenty countries will designate 40 new marine protected areas, totaling nearly 460,000 square miles of ocean; if you add the Papahānaumokuākea expansion, it’s more than 900,000 square miles of ocean protected in 2016.

The designation was welcomed news to Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor and environmental activist whose foundation has donated millions to marine conservation efforts.

“This is exactly the kind of bold leadership that we all need more of," DiCaprio said.

DiCaprio said he hopes this is only the beginning.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street."Mary Cybulski / Paramount Pictures via AP

“It’s critical we keep this momentum up,” he said of protecting oceans and reversing the impact of climate change. He has also met with leaders of the island nations of Palau and Kiribati, whose communities are threatened by the rising tides.

He said he saw the impacts first hand when filming the new movie “Before the Flood.” A marine scientist gave him a tour of the coral reefs off the coast of the Bahamas in an underwater submersible.

“What I saw took my breath away, not a fish in sight, colorless ghostlike corral, complete graveyard," he said. "This is the state of the majority of the world’s coral reefs and it’s a sobering reality.”

The Associated Press contributed.