The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Court Upholds Marine National Monument Designation

  • January 24th, 2020 — by Terra Bowling — Category: Marine Monuments

  • In December, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld President Barack Obama’s designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.i The monument encompasses 4,913 square miles off the coast of New England. The monument has unique geological features, including three underwater canyons, and serves as habitat for more than 54 species of deep-sea corals, endangered whales and sea turtles, and other marine mammals and fish species. Several commercial fishing groups challenged the designation, alleging that the President exceeded his statutory authority in designating the monument under the Antiquities Act. The ruling affirmed a federal district court’s dismissal of the case.

    As the appellate court noted, Presidents have designated many national monuments under the Antiquities Act, including the designation of the Grand Canyon National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument by President George W. Bush. The Antiquities Act grants the President the authority to establish national monuments to protect “...historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government... .” 54 U.S.C. § 320301(a). The President may reserve parcels of land as part of the monument; however, the reserved land must be “confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Id. § 320301(b).

    In its appeal, the commercial fishing groups made the same claims it used in federal district court. The groups argued that the Antiquities Act did not apply to submerged lands, the monument was not compatible with the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA), the federal government did not control the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in a way that empowered the President to make the designation, and the designated area was not the smallest-area compatible with management. The court dismissed all of these claims in turn.

    The appellate court first addressed whether the Antiquities Act reaches submerged lands. The court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has “consistently held that the Antiquities Act reaches submerged lands and the waters associated with them.” The court dismissed this claim, finding the on-point Supreme Court precedent conclusive.

    Next, the court considered whether NMSA precludes the President from designating a marine monument under the Antiquities Act. NMSA authorizes the federal government to designate and manage marine sanctuaries in the “United States exclusive economic zone.” The appellate court again agreed with the lower court, finding that NMSA and the Antiquities Act were compatible, as they addressed different needs. The Antiquities Act limits monuments to the “smallest area compatible” with management and protects objects of “historic or scientific interest.” Under NMSA, the marine sanctuaries may be much larger and address a wide array of values.

    The court also summarily dismissed the claim that the federal government lacked sufficient authority to control the EEZ. The court cited domestic and international law granting the U.S. control over the EEZ. The court noted “the federal government exercises unrivaled authority over the EEZ.”

    Finally, the court rejected the claim that the monument was not the smallest-area compatible with management. The court found the plaintiffs failed to identify which portion of the Monument “lacks the natural resources and ecosystems the President sought to protect.”

    For these reasons, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s dismissal of the challenge. The ruling affirms that U.S. Presidents may use the Antiquities Act to establish marine national monuments. If the commercial fishing groups decide to appeal the decision, the next stop would be the U.S. Supreme Court.

    i Massachusetts Lobstermen's Ass'n v. Ross, No. 18-5353, 2019 WL 7198513 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 27, 2019).

  • Terra Bowling
    Senior Research Counsel

Stay Current with
Our Publications

Subscribe today to our free
quarterly publication, The SandBar
— and to our monthly newsletter,
the Ocean and Coastal Case Alert.