Obama announces plans for huge marine preserve expansion

Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
CC BY 2.0 Erik Oberg. Palmyra Atoll, located in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

The expansion of the Pacific Ocean preserve could make it the largest of its kind in the world.

Today President Obama announced plans to expand the boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, a marine reserve created by George W. Bush in 2009. The final perimeter has not yet been determined, but maritime law allows the U.S. to control up to 200 nautical miles away from the shore.

If Obama chooses to use the full 200 miles, the reserve could be expanded by about nine times its current size, protecting 780,000 square miles. The protected area surrounds sparsely populated islands that are located between Hawaii and American Samoa. The President said the final shape will be determined after a period of public comment, and will consider input from conservationists, scientists, fishermen and other stakeholders.

Obama’s announcement was made during an oceans conference hosted by the U.S. Department of State. “Let’s make sure that years from now we can look our children in the eye and tell them that, yes, we did our part, we took action, and we led the way toward a safer, more stable world,” he said in a video message.

The announcement comes not long after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released updated rules for creating new marine sanctuaries, which now give communities the opportunity to nominate areas for consideration.

It’s unclear how much of an impact expanding the preserve will have on sea life and the local habitat. The Washington Post reports that there is little commercial fishing in the area, nor are there any oil exploration operations.

However, expanding the preserve seems like a step in the right direction, and many conservationists are celebrating the announcement. "It’s immensely valuable to science and home to vast numbers of ocean species,” Joshua S. Reichert, executive vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, told the L.A. Times.

Although there’s little commercial activity in this area currently, expanding the preserve provides some insurance that this will remain the status quo. As climate change impacts the ocean and threatens fish populations, protected areas where fishing is limited may become more important in the future.

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