By Courtney Mattison
“The United States does not have an Amazon basin, but it has the watery equivalent, a paradise of turtles and sharks, seals and dolphins, coral reefs and giant clams, frigate birds and boobies.”[i] Last Thursday, the environmental community rejoiced as President Obama announced that the U.S. would protect this natural treasure by expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and creating the largest protected area anywhere on Earth. Building upon the 83,000 square miles of U.S. territory designated for protection by President George W. Bush in 2009, Obama’s executive action increases the reach of this cluster of remote Pacific reserves southwest of Hawaii to 491,000 square miles – three times the size of California and six times larger than the monument’s previous size.
Marine monuments are like national parks in the ocean – wilderness areas that are heavily protected from use by humans. Now, with the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (or PRIMNM,) a total of 2.8 percent of our global ocean lies within areas officially designated for protection and close to 1 percent of Earth’s oceans are considered “highly protected,” with bans on all commercial fishing and other exploitative practices.[ii] That may not sound like much, but it’s a big improvement. The expanded monument includes all of the U.S. exclusive economic zone areas extending 200 miles from the coastlines of Wake, Johnston, and Jarvis Islands as well as smaller areas surrounding Palmyra, Baker and Howland Islands and Kingman Reef. Exclusive economic zones (EEZs) limit how far into the high seas one nation can legally control activities surrounding land within its jurisdiction.
The areas protected within the PRIMNM include some of the most pristine tropical islands and coral reef ecosystems in the world, with vital foraging zones and migration routes, and recovery zones for highly mobile and endangered animals like sea turtle and tuna species that are threatened by fishing and other human impacts throughout the Pacific. Expanding this monument and banning all commercial fishing, resource extraction, and waste dumping protects deep coral reefs and seamounts that support thousands of these important species and are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and ocean acidification from our greenhouse gas emissions.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced Obama’s executive action on Thursday at a gathering in New York City to celebrate progress since the Our Oceans meeting in June. The U.S. now protects approximately ten percent of marine regions within its jurisdiction, compared to an average of one percent worldwide. Dr. Sylvia Earle was present as Secretary Kerry pledged to help safeguard the marine environment:
“We’re committed to protecting more of the world’s ocean. Today, one to three percent of the ocean is protected, that’s it. That’s why President Obama will sign a proclamation today that will create one of the largest maritime protected areas in the world. It will be protected in perpetuity.”
By preventing commercial fishing, oil and gas drilling and other activities that threaten some of the world’s most biodiverse waters, the monument expansion is a historic victory – but it didn’t come easily. Although it protects less area than originally proposed at the Our Oceans conference in June (491,000 compared to 782,000 square miles), this expansion incorporates compromises with stakeholders like the tuna fishing industry, which fiercely opposed it for fear that decreased fishing territory would limit their profits. According to Michel Boots, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Obama Administration aimed to find a balance between multi-species conservation and fishing industry concerns. “We thought [the monument decision] was a good way to balance what the science was telling us was important to protect and the needs of those who use the area,” Boots said. Research shows that marine parks can help fish stocks recover and spill over into unprotected areas, benefitting both the fish species and the fishing industry, so this compromise is likely to be fruitful.
“It’s important to remember how interconnected the ocean is. If you take tunas out a whole lot of things happen, because they are apex predators. We want to make sure there are some places that are as pristine as possible for as long as possible” said Elliott Norse, founder and chief scientist of our partners, the Seattle-based Marine Conservation Institute (MCI) which was instrumental in the creation and expansion of the PRIMNM. By allowing fishing around approximately half of the islands and atolls in the area, regulators hope to limit any economic impacts on U.S. fishing interests while protecting the most vital habitats.
Norse and his team at MCI have been working to protect the U.S. Pacific Islands for over a decade through scientific and advocacy work. A cheerful Norse told National Geographic over the phone Thursday:
“Teddy Roosevelt started designating national monuments in 1906; that’s 108 years ago. Today, we thank him when we go to the Grand Canyon. Those actions seemed unnecessary at the time because there wasn’t much of a risk then, but the risks got greater with time. I think a hundred years from now people will be praising Barack Obama for having the vision to protect the Pacific remote islands.”[iii]
The expansion of this monument is still far from Mission Blue’s goal of seeing 20% of the world ocean protected by 2020 – a number scientists agree would dramatically increase the health and resilience of marine ecosystems in the face of climate change and ocean acidification – but it’s a fantastic stepping stone. We are thrilled to see the U.S. speak through its actions by expanding this enormous marine sanctuary and can’t wait to see who follows in its fin strokes.
Featured image (top): Coral gardens at Palmyra Atoll NWR. Photo © Kydd Pollock/USFWS.