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Map of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument (image © 2016 The Pew Charitable Trusts via pewtrusts.org)

To explore the United States’s newest national monument, you’re going to need a boat — or at least, some kind of device that keeps you afloat oceanic waters. In a historic move, President Obama this morning established the first marine national monument in the Atlantic during a State Department conference. Christened the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the designated area, located within the US Exclusive Economic Zone, protects 4,913 square miles of marine ecosystems 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

Unlike most monuments that may immediately come to mind, such as the Statue of Liberty or the recently designated Stonewall Inn, the section of the Atlantic includes no dry land. Its treasures all lie submerged, but they are as stunning as some of our national parks: according to NPR, the area has been called “an underwater Yellowstone.” Approximately the size of Connecticut, the stretch of water is home to three giant canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, extinct volcanos, and a rich array of sea life: deep-sea corals, sperm whales, sea turtles, and many other exotic or endangered wildlife teem beneath in those depths, as researchers have found. Four seamounts that tower thousands of feet above the ocean floor — named Bear, Physalia, Mytilus, and Retriever — are now also protected. Each was once an active volcanoes about 100 million years ago and today provide habitats for countless deep sea creatures. The group is part of the New England Seamount chain, the longest in the North Atlantic that consists of over 20 extinct volcano peaks.

Obama has protected more areas of land and water than any other president in US history: just last month, Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument became the world’s largest marine protected area — roughly twice the size of Texas — after Obama expanded the region first established by George W. Bush. But such use of his executive authority has drawn ire from Republicans in particular who question his use of power granted under the 1906 Antiquities Act. This most recent addition in the Atlantic has largely angered members of the fishing industry who fear financial repercussions. Beyond activities such as mining and drilling, commercial fishing within the borders will be banned immediately, with 60 days to stop operations (lobster and red crab fisheries have seven years). The Obama administration, however, has already made adjustments to the initial preservation plan, shrinking the size of the originally intended area.

“We’re helping make the oceans more resilient to climate change, and this will help fishermen better understand the changes that are taking place that will affect their livelihood,” Obama said in his speech this morning. “We’re doing it in a way that respects the fisherman’s role.”

As Pew Charitable Trusts — which applauded the announcement — notes, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument differs from other marine monument designations as it is located offshore from highly populated cities. In the grand scheme of things, the waters near us may seem like a small patch, but beyond protecting valuable sea life, the decision may set a significant precedent worldwide: as the New York Times reported, White House officials expect around 20 other countries attending the morning’s conference to also announce their own protection of marine areas.

Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE, Gothamist, Artnews, Smithsonian Magazine,...