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Corals are seen on the Mytilus Seamount off the coast of New England in the North Atlantic Ocean in 2013.

NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via AP

Laura Trethewey is the author of The Imperilled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea and a former writer and editor at the Vancouver Aquarium.

On June 5, President Donald Trump announced opening the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing. The move was sold as a way to support a fishing industry reeling from Chinese tariffs on American lobsters and the coronavirus’s disastrous impact on seafood sales. The ocean covers more than 70 per cent of the Earth and yet only 2.5 per cent is preserved by no-take marine protected areas, such as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off the coast of New England. Gutting the few marine protections that do exist serves no one, fishermen included. Mr. Trump’s announcement holds up the historic status quo of freedom at sea as the ocean teeters on outright collapse.

From dumping to plundering to colonizing, the ocean has always been a place of Wild West rule-breaking. For my recent book, I spoke with a biologist tracking the declining numbers of sturgeon; an activist trying to recycle plastic pollution; a Syrian refugee who crossed the Mediterranean in an inflatable dinghy; and a maritime lawyer who lobbies for labour rights on cruise ships. Across all these stories, I found that the maritime legal principle of freedom at sea tied the chaos together.

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Written by a Dutch jurist to defend a Dutch captain who seized a Portuguese galleon in 1603, The Freedom of the Seas argued that the ocean is a naturally and historically unoccupied space and should remain free for eternity. More than 400 years later, the high seas continue to operate this way. International laws are meant to govern the 64 per cent of the ocean that falls outside territorial waters, but they are so flagrantly flouted you can watch them being broken on reality TV. A moratorium on commercial whaling has been in effect since 1986, but on seven seasons of Whale Wars the hard-line animal-rights group Sea Shepherd has filmed Japanese ships harvesting whales for research purposes, or so the Japanese claimed. Up to 26 billion tonnes of fish globally is landed illegally each year, and more than 30 per cent of fish stocks are on the verge of collapse. Shipping companies are notorious for off-loading oily waste at sea; cruise ships have the same reputation with sewage. Countries neglect to crack down on destructive fishing practices or they overlook barely seaworthy vessels that belch smoke, leak sewage, or employ slave labour.

Throughout my reporting, I occasionally met a disadvantaged person, such as a Syrian refugee, who turned the freedom at sea to her advantage. But that was rare, and in those cases, freedom was so dangerous it seemed more like desperation. More often, I saw freedom used as a cover for lawlessness that benefited the rich and powerful and destroyed the ocean for everyone else.

There is another better future for the ocean. Over the past decade, the United Nations has pushed governments to place 10 per cent of the ocean inside marine protected areas by the end of 2020. This is happening alongside the UN High Seas Treaty negotiations, which are trying to bring governance to international waters at last, including creating highly protected marine reserves.

Study after study has borne out the wisdom that placing no-take fishing zones in biological hot spots allows the environment and economy to flourish. According to one study, 670 per cent more fish swim in fully protected versus unprotected waters. Fish stocks are preserved for the fishing industry who catch the boosted populations that spill out of reserves. Coastal communities benefit from economic opportunities created by ecotourism and ecosystems are made more resilient to climate change. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is one of these biodiversity hot spots.

More than 160 kilometres off the coast of Cape Cod, a series of steep canyons draw seabirds, whales, dolphin, turtles, tuna, sharks and many other species to feast on the rich ecosystem created by nutrient-filled water welling up from the deep. Think Grand Central Station, but for marine life. Informed by the best science available, former U.S. president Barack Obama protected three canyons and four underwater mountains from commercial fishing in 2016. The monument protected only 1 per cent of the New England coastline from commercial fishing. Now industrial fishing boats will return, scooping up animals with ruthlessly efficient fishing gear. A brief fish boom followed by inevitable bust – this is Mr. Trump’s gift to the New England fishing community and the global ocean at large.

Today we know far more about the ocean than when the Freedom of the Seas was penned. In the 1600s, ship captains were calling manatees mermaids and scrawling “here be dragons” across nautical charts. Today we have the science to make informed decisions that encourage the environment and industry to flourish. Instead, stripping the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts of protection is yet another example of historic lawlessness at sea. The Antiquities Act that allowed Mr. Obama to create an underwater monument does not allow President Donald Trump to alter it. The Conservation Law Foundation intends to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration shortly. Meanwhile, time is running out to save a sea ruined by freedom.

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