As a part of his year of action, President Obama has just expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. It is now the largest marine reserve in the world, and six times larger than the original reserve at 490,000 square miles (nearly twice the size of Texas). The protected area surrounding 7 U.S. controlled islands between Hawaii and American Samoa represents a major conservation victory.
The reserve is completely off limits to commercial fishing, dumping, and deep sea mining in order to better protect the vulnerable coral reefs, seamounts, and unique marine ecosystems of this area. (Seamounts are undersea mountains formed by volcanic activity often host to incredible biodiversity hotspots.) The expansion will also better protect marine animals with “large migration and foraging ranges that stretch throughout the area,” like sea turtles, many marine mammals, seabirds and manta rays.
This proclamation comes on the heels of the National Climate Assessment which states that climate change is causing sea levels and temperatures to rise, putting reefs at greater risk for damage. The coral is also threatened by ocean acidification, which is increasing 50 times faster than any previously recorded change in millions of years.
Such a monumental project does not, however, come without complications. Policing such a large territory will be difficult. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard was already stretched thin protecting the former boundaries of the reserve. Enforcing the fishing ban will require finding individual boats conducting illegal activity, or “pirate fishing,” over an immense territory. So far, the Obama administration has not made public any plans for enforcing the proclamation, but the use of drones and GPS tracking is being considered.
A more preemptive strategy is also in the works. Secretary of State John Kerry hopes the Port State Measures agreement, an international treaty to ban illegal fish from the market, will reduce the need for vast security measures in the new reserve. 11 nations have already signed, but before the treaty is official, 25 nations must agree. Nonetheless, Kerry hopes to have it done within a year.
Although the plan requires some further development, experts laud Obama’s efforts. The new Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is testament to the expanding political interest in protecting our oceans.