Environment
GeoEye/AP

Obama announces creation of world's largest marine reserve

Executive orders aim to prevent overfishing and protect marine life from climate change in vast stretch of Pacific

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he plans to create the world’s largest marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean to protect it from drilling, overfishing and other actions that could threaten marine life.

Obama announced a series of executive actions in a video message to participants of the Our Ocean conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We’ve already shown that when we work together, we can protect our oceans for future generations. So let’s redouble our efforts,” the president said.

The plan would expand the Pacific Islands Marine National Monument — which former President George W. Bush established in 2009 at 87,000 square miles — to protect the area from overfishing and the effects of climate change. The reserve would include mostly uninhabited, U.S.-controlled islands and atolls between Hawaii and American Samoa.

Waters in the south-central Pacific Ocean contain “some of the most pristine tropical marine environments in the world,” the White House Council on Environmental Quality said. But its coral reefs and marine ecosystems are some of the most vulnerable to climate change and ocean acidification.

Before the final boundaries are set, Obama said, he plans to collaborate with fishermen, scientists, politicians and experts in conservation.

Conservationists applauded the president’s plan, saying Obama has worked on such issues throughout his presidency.

“I think today’s announcement is a success, but when you put it in context, it builds off of five and a half years of solid efforts by the president to keep moving forward on ocean issues,” said Emily Woglom, vice president for conservation policy and programs at the Ocean Conservancy. “It’s clear that Obama is turning towards his legacy.”

Earlier in his presidency, Obama had created a National Ocean Policy by executive order on July 19, 2010. The policy created a council of 27 federal agencies and departments, in an attempt to better cooperate, share information and streamline decision making.

That order aimed to better manage ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources, to develop and disseminate scientific information to various stakeholders, to share data about severe storms and sea level rise and to restore important habitats.

Unspoiled coral reefs

In Tuesday’s orders, the president also directed the government to create a program to deter illegal fishing and seafood fraud, as an estimated 20 percent of wild marine fish caught each year are part of the black market.

“Because our seafood travels through an increasingly long, complex and nontransparent supply chain, there are numerous opportunities for seafood fraud to occur and illegally caught fish to enter the U.S. market,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director at the ocean conservation group Oceana.

Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, a small Pacific island nation, spoke at the Our Ocean event and announced Monday that it would ban all commercial fishing in its own marine park, the size of California. The ban will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015.

“We will also close the area around the southern Line Islands to commercial fishing to allow the area to recover,” Tong said. The area around Kiribati is home to some of the most unspoiled coral reef archipelagos in the Pacific.

“Diving in the southern Line Islands is like getting in a time machine and traveling back to the reefs of the past,” National Geographic explorer-in-residence Enric Sala said.

Obama also announced new measures to protect coastal communities that are vulnerable to climate change. He added that $102 million in grants would be offered to restore floodplains and natural barriers along the Atlantic coast.

The measures will be carried out by executive order, so they will not require congressional approval. 

Ocean acidification, also the result of global-warming-causing carbon emissions, was another item on the president’s agenda. He said funding would be offered for research into how the ocean’s changing chemistry is affecting marine life.

In an effort to curb climate change and ocean acidification, Obama announced last month new measures to cut carbon emissions — targeting a 30 percent reduction from the country’s power plants.

“This process is to identify and build support to protect special areas of the ocean — today is just the beginning,” Woglom said. “This conference is an opportunity to take this energy and high-level attention and make sure that Obama follows through in the next two and a half years to advance this as much as we can.”

With wire services

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