Fehily v. Biden (Northeast Canyons and Seamounts)
Roughly 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument encompasses a cluster of undersea canyons, extinct volcanoes (“seamounts”), and the diverse ocean ecosystems in and around them. This biodiversity hot spot offers food, shelter, and nursery habitat to a wide range of marine life, including puffins, whales, sea turtles, and deep-sea, cold-water corals. Then-president Barack Obama established the monument in 2016 to protect these resources from commercial fishing and other extractive activities, keeping them intact for future generations.
The monument has already survived one legal challenge. In 2017, five fishing industry groups filed a lawsuit—Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Ross—seeking to abolish the monument and open it to commercial fishing. NRDC and partners intervened to defend the monument, and we prevailed. The district court upheld the monument’s legality and dismissed the fishing groups’ complaint; the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed; and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Meanwhile, in June 2020, then-president Donald Trump issued a proclamation purporting to strip the monument of its core protection and reopen it to commercial fishing. NRDC and our partners swiftly filed a new lawsuit, Conservation Law Foundation v. Trump, challenging Trump’s unlawful rollback.
Not long thereafter, President Joe Biden took office, initiated a review of Trump’s monument rollbacks, and ultimately—in October 2021—issued a proclamation restoring full protections to Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. Administration leaders repudiated Trump’s rollback as “unprecedented,” acknowledging “serious and fundamental questions as to whether a president has authority to reduce boundaries or core protections in a way that is tantamount to revocation of a monument.” With the monument’s protections restored, we voluntarily dismissed our complaint in Conservation Law Foundation v. Trump.
But the fight isn’t over yet. In April 2022, two commercial fishermen plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit—Fehily v. Biden—challenging the monument’s legality again. Represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which had represented the fishing industry plaintiffs in Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Ross, these new plaintiffs rehashed the same legal arguments that had failed in that previous litigation, this time in federal court in New Jersey. Like the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association plaintiffs, the Fehily plaintiffs ask the court to nullify the monument and reopen it to commercial fishing. NRDC and our partners—Conservation Law Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity, and a whale-watch naturalist in Maine—moved to intervene to defend the monument’s legality again. The court granted our motion in July 2022.