The United States will soon be home to the largest protected area on the planet, at land or at sea: President Obama has announced his intent to preserve a 782,000-mile stretch of the central Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument was created by George W. Bush towards the end of his presidency. Now, President Obama plans to greatly enlarge this national monument beyond its current 87,000 square mile size. The waters of this marine monument zone would be off limits from commercial fishing, oil and gas drilling and exploration, and other harmful activities.
As proposed, the expanded marine national monument will encompass the 200 nautical mile EEZ surrounding seven uninhabited islands and atolls between Hawaii and American Samoa. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument will quadruple the number of marine mountains under protection, and double the area of the world’s oceans under protection.
However, the boundaries of this monument are not final. President Obama has indicated that he wants input from fishermen, scientists, politicians, and conservation experts before the protections take effect. The plan will be open to public comment over the summer, and will go into effect later this year.
The Pacific Remote Islands area is home to pristine waters and coral reefs, and is extremely vulnerable to climate change and ocean acidification, as well as to overfishing and pollution. By expanding the boundaries of the protected zone, President Obama will provide shelter for 2 dozen marine mammal species, 5 types of threatened sea turtles, a variety of sharks and predatory fish, and the millions of nesting seabirds that live on the island. Additionally, there are economic benefits to this expansion: this could increase tourism to the area, and will help fish stocks recover, leading to better fish harvests.
Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, presidents have the authority to create land- or water-based national monuments by executive order. President Obama has used this power 11 times to safeguard land areas, but this is his first exercise of this power to protect underwater areas.
However, ocean preservation and coastal resiliency are not a new or isolated elements of President Obama’s agenda.
By executive order of July 19, 2010, President Obama established the National Ocean Policy, and convened a task force on stewardship and management of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources; restoration of habitats; and storm surge and sea level rise. This task force developed an implementation plan in 2013, which covers marine planning, fisheries, aquaculture, and offshore energy, among other things.
This June, President Obama established a task force to develop a program to combat seafood fraud and black market fish trade, which will announce its first round of recommendations within the next six months. At least 20% of wild marine fish caught each year are sold on the black market, at a cost of $23 billion to the fishing industry.
Also this June, administration issued a rule allowing the public to nominate new marine sanctuaries off of US coasts and in the Great Lakes region. The administration also announced aid for coastal communities that are vulnerable to climate change in the form of $102 million in grants to restore floodplains and natural barriers along the Atlantic Coast.
In an administration that has also made strong strides towards greenhouse gas reductions by setting standards for power plant emissions, this broad push on maritime issues may make President Obama’s legacy one of environmental priorities and protectionism.