Launching a broad campaign to address significant maritime issues such as overfishing and pollution, on June 17 President Obama announced that, by executive order, he intends to make a vast stretch of the Pacific Ocean the world’s largest marine sanctuary—off limits to fishing, energy exploration and other activities. The administration also plans to create a mechanism to allow the public to nominate new marine sanctuaries off U.S. coasts.
The proposal, which will take effect later this year, calls for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to expand from about 87,000 square miles to almost 782,000 square miles. The designated ocean area encompasses a remote, uninhabited region adjacent to islands and atolls controlled by the U.S. and extends up to 200 nautical miles offshore from these territories.
The proposal faces the objection of the U.S. tuna fleet that operates in the region. Up to 3% of the annual U.S. tuna catch is caught in the western and central Pacific. When the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument was created by President George W. Bush in 2009, sport fishing was exempted to counter industry opposition. If the protected area expands, recreational fishing interests will probably seek to retain the existing exemption to avoid setting a precedent, even though sport fishing activity in the expanse is scarce.
A public comment period this summer will provide the Departments of Commerce and Interior with up-to-date information on the level of commercial activity in the area and make any necessary modifications.
The potential expanded area would include a five-fold increase in the number of protected underwater mountains, halt tuna fishing, and shelter dozens of species of marine mammals, endangered sea turtles, as well as a variety of sharks and other predatory species, and protect some of the world’s most pristine and biologically rich marine ecosystems.
As part of the administration’s increased focus on maritime issues, the President will also direct federal agencies to develop a comprehensive program to fight seafood fraud and the worldwide black-market fish trade, and review of steps the U.S. can take to stop illegal fishing, which does untold damage to marine ecosystems and to coastal nations around the world.
Obama has also been advised to consider expanding the borders of the monuments Bush created in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the Marianas Trench.
Other countries are also creating marine reserves. The British government is moving to protect the area around the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, and the small Pacific island of Kiribati plans to close an area roughly the size of California to commercial fishing by year’s end.
“The President’s proposed action is a huge step forward for the ocean,” said Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Expanding these protections will provide a safe haven for coral gardens, seamounts, and the rich waters that support hundreds of species of fish, sea turtles, giant clams, dolphins, whales and sharks, conserving them for future generations. This represents a commitment to the kind of bold action needed to restore the failing health of our ocean, on which we all depend, and continues the bipartisan tradition of ocean protection. We hope it sets the stage for taking similar action to protect key areas of our ocean around the U.S. and the world.”