On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced his intention to establish the world’s largest marine protected area at the U.S. State Department’s Our Ocean summit in Washington, D.C. The conference, hosted by U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and attended by representatives from over 80 countries, was held in an attempt to address issues affecting the world’s oceans, focusing particularly on over-fishing, pollution and ocean acidification. Obama’s proposed marine protected area would expand on the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the central south Pacific, which President George W. Bush created in 2009. Notably, though, the extension would increase the protected area’s coverage nine times over, from 87,000 square miles to 782,000 square miles. The enlargement of the National Monument would not only make it the largest area protected from fishing and energy exploration in the world, but would also double the total globally protected ocean area. The region, which would extend for the full 200 miles of the U.S. economic exclusive zone around seven remote islands and atolls, would also be much larger than any existing protected land area.
National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence, Enric Sala, has hailed this region of the Pacific as “the closest thing… to pristine ocean.” According to Sala, who explored the area’s reefs in 2005 and who was an instrumental influence on the Bush administration, the area has a richness of marine life found in few other places on Earth. It’s home to 22 species of marine mammal, five species of turtle, and a population of sharks and game fish so large that the number of predators in the area exceeds the collective mass of prey species. The expansion of the existing national monument proposed by Obama would protect 241 submerged mountains, which provide a focal point for the region’s marine life and are home to some of the oldest deep-water corals in the world. In his address to the conference on Tuesday, President Obama cited his childhood in Hawaii as the source of his love for the ocean, and recognized that if we continue to ignore ocean-conservation issues, “we won’t just be squandering one of humanity’s greatest treasures, we’ll be cutting off one of our major sources of food and economic growth.”
Obama’s ability to establish the new protected area would be made through an executive order that would not have to be approved by Congress thanks to the Antiquities Act of 1906. This is not the first time that Obama has utilized this power; throughout his term in office he has designated no fewer than 11 terrestrial national monuments, each one ensuring the preservation of large tracts of wilderness. Neither is he the first president to use executive authority to protect areas of public land or water. Both Obama’s Republican and Democrat predecessors have done the same, with George W. Bush holding the current record for creating the most marine monuments. During his tenure, Bush created four marine protected areas, as well as the world’s largest (at the time), 140,000 square miles of ocean off Hawaii. There are almost 1,800 marine protected areas in U.S. waters, although all those areas combined account for quite a small amount — just over 3 percent — of the country’s territorial waters. This statistic is mirrored globally, with less than 2 percent of the world’s oceans enjoying protection of any kind.
Although President Obama’s announcement has been hailed by environmental organizations worldwide, predictably, not everyone is happy about his intentions. Obama’s terrestrial national monuments were criticized particularly by Republican lawmakers for preventing lucrative commercial activities like drilling for oil and gas, and his marine national monument is being contested for the same reason. House Representative Doc Hastings, a Republican from Washington State, criticized Obama’s announcement, commenting “it appears that this administration will use whatever authorities — real or made up — to close our ocean and coastal areas with blatant disregard for possible economic consequences.” Hastings also argued that the decision to designate marine sanctuaries should go through Congress, despite the stipulations of the Antiquities Act of 1906 stating that it is not a legal requirement to do so. In reality, the only industry likely to be affected by the expansion of the already existing marine park is the United States’ commercial tuna fishery, which relies upon the western and central Pacific for up to 3 percent of its annual catch. However, according to John Podesta, Obama’s counselor on climate change and environmental affairs, the marine park should help dwindling fish stocks to recover, ultimately positively impacting American fisheries.
At the summit, Obama also pledged to develop a national strategy to combat black-market fishing and dishonest seafood labeling in the marketplace. According to a recent study published by the journal Marine Policy, between 20 and 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imported into the United States comes from black-market sources and is the result of illegal or unreported fisheries. This influx of illegally sourced seafood causes legitimate fishing industries to lose approximately $23 billion each year, and often results in the mislabeling of seafood products to avoid detection. According to the environmental group Oceana, 33 percent of fish sold in American cities is labeled incorrectly, with species high in mercury being sold as healthier, higher quality fish. The summit also addressed wider marine issues; host John Kerry said that “people underestimate the enormous damage that we as humans are inflicting on the ocean every day. We run the risk of fundamentally breaking entire ecosystems.”
The United States government was not the only body to commit to marine conservation at the summit. Britain may establish a sanctuary around the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, and Kiribati’s president Anote Tong announced that his country would protect an area the size of California by the end of the year. Leonardo DiCaprio also spoke at the conference on Tuesday and committed $7 million through his foundation to fund marine conservation efforts. Obama’s new marine protected area will come into effect later this year, after a comment period during which the White House will seek input from environmentalists, fishermen and government officials as to the details of establishing and running the sanctuary. In the same way that previous presidents’ protection of marine areas inspired Obama’s decision, let’s hope that this new sanctuary acts as a precedent for future world leaders.