U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jim Maragos / AP

US creates world's largest marine sanctuary

President Obama signed a proclamation on Thursday to expand a marine reserve in the Pacific to 490,000 square miles

President Barack Obama signed a proclamation on Thursday to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean in a bid to protect sea life from climate change, the White House said.

The decree expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the south-central Pacific, thereby making it off-limits to development and commercial fishing.

"The administration identified expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument as an area of particular interest because science has shown that large marine protected areas can help rebuild biodiversity, support fish populations, and improve overall ecosystem resilience," a White House statement issued Wednesday said.

The expanded reserve will cover 490,000 square miles — an area roughly three times the size of California.

The proclamation bans commercial fishing, deep-sea mining and other extraction of underwater resources, but recreational fishing will continue to be allowed. White House officials said they decided to allow some fishing in an attempt to preserve and encourage the public's access to federal areas.

Millions of seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals live in the bio-rich expanse included in the reserve, which will also add new protections for more than 130 "seamounts" – underwater mountains where rare or undiscovered species are frequently found.

The move to broaden the George W. Bush-era reserve comes as Obama seeks to show concrete presidential action to protect the environment, despite firm opposition in Congress to new environmental legislation. At the United Nations this week, Obama announced new U.S. commitments to help other nations deal with the effects of climate change, as world leaders seek to galvanize support for a major global climate treaty to be finalized next year in Paris.

"We hope the steps taken today by the U.S. government will accelerate similar actions by a growing list of coastal nations to protect more of the world's great ocean treasures," said Matt Rand, who heads the ocean program at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

While a major symbolic victory for environmentalists, who long urged Obama to take this step, the designation has limited practical implications. That's because little fishing or drilling are taking place in the region even without the new protections.

The expansion also falls far short of what Obama could have done had he used the full extent of his powers.

Maritime law gives the U.S. control up to 200 nautical miles from the coast. Under Bush, the U.S. set aside waters extending about 50 miles from the shore of an array of U.S.-administered islands in the south-central Pacific, thousands of miles from the American mainland.

The islands sit between Hawaii and American Samoa and are divided into five regions. Obama is extending the preserve to the full 200 miles — but only for three of the five regions.

Had Obama expanded the reserve in all five regions, he could have protected more than 780,000 square miles, according to a geographic analysis by Pew.

Wire services

Related News

Barack Obama

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Barack Obama

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter