The US just created the world’s largest marine sanctuary

One small step for marine-kind.
One small step for marine-kind.
Image: NOAA/Claire Fackler
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The US is establishing the world’s largest marine protected area to preserve some of the country’s most wildlife-rich waters in the Pacific Ocean.

US president Barack Obama will sign an executive proclamation today, three months after he initially proposed action, detailing the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, an existing protected area established by former president George W. Bush in 2009. The monument will span 490,000 square miles of ocean—more than quadruple its original size. It will encompass historic, little-used islands including Johnston and Palmyra Atolls, which boast deep coral reefs, an estimated 130 seamounts, and countless fish, sea turtles, sharks, and whales.

map of President Obama's Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument expansion
Image: Marine Conservation Institute

US presidents can thank Theodore Roosevelt for the power to create and expand such national preservation sites. In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, broad legislation that assigned executive power to protecting historic sites and wild lands.

In this case, Bush had initially closed off a 50-nautical-mile radius around each of the seven islands to commercial fishing and all other extractive activities (with certain exceptions for recreational fishing); Obama’s expansion pushes that radius to 200 nautical miles for three of the islands. Fishing lobbyists chipped away at Obama’s initial proposal to put a 200-mile radius around all seven islands.

Conservationists and commercial fishermen have long been at odds about how to strike a balance between preserving marine life and preserving the fishing trade. Conservationists argue that short-term restrictions on fishing in contained areas will re-populate adjacent fishing spots.

The move is a small one, but it could have impact similar to the 1872 establishment of Yellowstone National Park, according to Elliott Norse, founder of the Marine Conservation Institute and one of the architects behind the Obama plan.

It may also add force to global efforts. Already Palau has plans to close its national waters from fishing, and Barbuda recently became the first Caribbean island to establish similar restrictions. At the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in September, National Geographic and several other organizations committed to motivating governments to establish 20 new marine reserves around the world within the next five years.