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.”