By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump announced on Friday he will open up a 5,000 square mile conservation area in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New England to commercial fishing.
The move allows commercial fishing to resume in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a sanctuary created in 2016 during the Obama administration. It also cancels a planned phase out of red crab and lobster fisheries in the area.
Trump signed a proclamation on opening the area during a visit to Maine in his latest move to appeal to working class and blue collar workers in an election year by touting regulatory rollbacks that he says can restore jobs and economic activity.
"We’re cutting regulations from highways and roadways to fish," Trump said at a roundtable event in Bangor.
Trump, who won in Maine's rural 2nd Congressional district in the 2016 election, also announced he would create a task force to identify international markets for U.S. seafood.
Environmental groups and some recreational fishermen warned that allowing commercial fishing in these areas undermines the protections established by the monument designations, putting marine wildlife, including endangered whales and sea turtles, sharks and fragile corals in danger of harm and entanglement in fishing nets.
"These are fragile and vulnerable resources, and I am concerned for their future health," said Rip Cunningham, former chair of the New England Fishery Management Council.
The commercial seafood industry and regional fishery management councils have pressed the Trump administration to restore commercial fishing in federal waters closed off under monument protections, citing the regulatory burden that they say forces fishermen to travel further with increased operational expenses and safety risks.
Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobsterman's Association who attended the roundtable, said the monument's restrictions on commercial fishing were done without the industry's input. "Fishermen needed to have input into this and we didn't," he said.
In 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had recommended that Trump allow commercial fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument. His recommendations came during a sweeping review of national monuments across the country that had been created by previous presidents under the Antiquities Act.
So far Trump has only proceeded to reduce the size of Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments, while leaving the other monuments intact. The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase decisions are now being challenged in court.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Alistair Bell)