This undated file photo released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows deep-sea spiral coral during a dive on the New England Seamount chain in the North Atlantic Ocean. A federal appeals court on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, upheld former President Barack Obama's designation of the federally protected conservation area in the Atlantic, a move that commercial fishermen oppose. Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration | AP

With our country engulfed in anger over police brutality towards black Americans — and with COVID-19 infections still raging nationwide — President Donald Trump spent much of his time here in Maine last week continuing his assault on our public lands and waters.

At a roundtable with carefully curated supporters, the president announced that he would reopen the only marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean to commercial fishing.

At a time when we need to address the impacts of centuries of systemic racism and recover from an ongoing pandemic, this was nothing more than a sorry stunt to divert attention from the president’s poor job performance.

Designated in 2016 by President Barack Obama, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is home to ancient and fragile coral communities, endangered whales, and an abundance of unique and rare marine life. Located 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod on the edge of the continental shelf, the monument includes close to 5,000 square miles of protected area free from threats like commercial fishing.

Representing just 1.5% of the total ocean waters off the coast of New England, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument was created after close to two years of public meetings with opportunities for fishermen (including those at the president’s roundtable) and many other stakeholders to comment on the proposed monument. Several compromises were reached, including one that allows the few lobster and crab fishermen who had fished in the area a seven-year window to continue.

As the BDN pointed out earlier this week, opening the monument to commercial fishing activity will have no economic benefit for Maine fishermen.

It is also illegal. Trump is exercising powers he doesn’t have to gut the decisions of a prior president, a pattern of behavior that we have seen from day one of this administration, and one that the courts have routinely rejected.

The Antiquities Act gives the president the power to create national monuments, but not to revoke them or eliminate core protections. Only Congress has the authority to change the size or core management protections of national monuments.

Removing protections and allowing industrial fishing within the boundaries of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts will cause irreparable damage. Industrial-scale fishing gear can catch and entangle marine wildlife including endangered whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and seabirds, as well as destroy rare and fragile corals.

Opening the monument will also eliminate the significant scientific value of having one small area of the ocean that is not heavily fished or exploited.

Maintaining the protections in the monument from commercial fishing would allow fish populations to rebound after years of depletion, which would actually help our coastal economies.

Protecting our ocean is also an essential component of solving the climate crisis. As humans have continued to pump carbon pollution into the atmosphere, our oceans have borne the brunt. After decades of enduring this abuse, the world’s oceans are warmer, more acidic, and losing oxygen – and our Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of all ocean waters on the planet. Combined with the long-term mismanagement of this public resource that has allowed chronic overfishing and destructive fishing gear, protecting areas like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is a small step towards rebuilding the biodiversity and resiliency of our oceans. The monument should continue to serve as an offshore refuge for marine life.

Allowing fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts will do nothing to help Maine fishermen recover lost revenue or add a single job — no Maine-based boats fish there. What will help them is a concentrated and coordinated effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic, which has gutted the demand for Maine caught lobster and fish, and to address the trade war that the president started with China that wrought unprecedented collateral damage on the Maine lobster fishery.

If anything, we should be protecting more areas of our oceans, not rolling back protections on the sole marine monument in the Atlantic. This latest assault on our waters does nothing to help Mainers, imperils the health of our ocean and cannot be allowed to stand.

Sean Mahoney is executive vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation Maine.