Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Ross

President Obama’s abuse of Antiquities Act declares 5,000 square miles of ocean off-limits

Cases > Separation of Powers > Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Ross
Lost: The Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to declare monuments on “land owned or controlled by the Federal government” to protect their historic or scientific value. On his way out of office, President Obama used this power to declare a 5,000-square-mile area of the ocean to be the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Because the ocean is not “land owned or controlled by the Federal government,” PLF represented a coalition of fishing industry associations in a lawsuit challenging this abuse of the statute, which renders off-limits areas long used for sustainable commercial fishing near New England and the East Coast. In 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case.

Originally designed to protect pueblo ruins in the southwestern states, the Antiquities Act gives the president authority to designate national monuments to protect areas of historic or scientific value, as long as they are “situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States” and the designated area is “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” In September 2016, President Obama ignored these limitations and declared a 5,000-square-mile area of the Atlantic Ocean—the Georges Bank, roughly the size of Connecticut—to be a national monument.

For centuries, the Georges Bank supported bountiful fisheries for a wide variety of fish and shellfish, resulting in the establishment of New England’s iconic fishing communities. These fisheries provide an important source of income and employment for fishermen throughout the Northeast. Cooperative government-private sector councils worked together to regulate equipment and fishing methods, the areas available for fishing, and catch limits to ensure the environmental sustainability of the area.

The monument designation strips the collaborative groups of any authority to manage the area, placing that power in the Departments of Commerce and the Interior, which are directed specifically to prohibit energy exploration or development, fishing, taking of any living or nonliving resources, and so forth.

As a result, coastal fishermen suffered significantly reduced income, virtually eliminated commercial fishing opportunities, and depletion of their investment in their boats and permits. PLF represented these fishermen, who sued to invalidate the monument designation. The Antiquities Act does not authorize the president to establish ocean monuments and, even if it did, the vast monument designated here does not comply with any of the statute’s limitations and conditions.

In 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case. In denying the case, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the Antiquities Act, “has ceased to pose any meaningful restraint. A statute permitting the President in his sole discretion to designate as monuments ‘landmarks,’ ‘structures,’ and ‘objects’—along with the smallest area of land compatible with their management—has been transformed into a power without any discernible limit to set aside vast and amorphous expanses of terrain above and below the sea.”

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What’s at stake?

  • The Antiquities Act contains important limitations to ensure that the power to establish monuments is limited to the minimum necessary to preserve historically or scientifically valuable sites on land owned or controlled by the federal government. President Obama complied with none of these limitations, an abusive use of executive power that cannot be countenanced.
  • The monument designation threatens to undermine years’ worth of effort and considerable costs absorbed by commercial fishermen to promote sustainable fishing in the region by forcing them to relocate to other areas that are less sustainable.

Case Timeline

April 09, 2019
March 07, 2017

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