President Obama Could Create the World’s Largest Marine Sanctuary

The protected zone would make a large area in the Pacific Ocean off limits to fishing and other environmentally harmful human activities

Photo: Marco Simoni/Corbis

Today, President Obama will announce plans to create the largest marine reserve in the world in the Pacific Ocean—essentially doubling the amount of ocean that is currently protected, the Washington Post reports.

The reserve would expand an existing protected area, Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which was set aside by President George W. Bush in 2009. President Obama's expansion would extend that area from 87,000 square miles to around 780,000 square miles, the Washington Post writes. Fishing and other environmentally harmful human activities such as ocean drilling will be banned within the reserve. Washington Post​:

The potential expansion area would quintuple the number of underwater mountains under protection. It would also end tuna fishing and provide shelter for nearly two dozen species of marine mammals, five types of threatened sea turtles, and a variety of sharks and other predatory fish species.

“It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to the pristine ocean,” said Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence who has researched the area’s reefs and atolls since 2005.

As the Post points out, the U.S. controls the most ocean territory of any country and is only second to China for its consumption of seafood. It's no secret that the world's oceans are struggling with problems like overfishing, ocean acidification and plastic pollution. Marine reserves can mitigate some of these problems: they increase the size and number of marine creatures within their borders, as well as the number of species. They can also help ocean species deal with climate change

Setting aside swaths of ocean is actually an old idea, Oceanus Magazine says:

Similar resource management tools have been used as far back as the Middle Ages, when European kings and princes controlled access to forests and streams, and the fish and wildlife in them. In Hawaii, local chiefs established and maintained networks of no-fishing “kapu” zones, with violations punishable by death.

But the effectiveness of this strategy depends on how well it's executed. Marine reserves that aren't well policed don't have much impact, for instance. And managing fisheries requires more than just putting part of the population off-limits. As the Guardian explains, one reason scientists have advocated for larger sanctuaries is that they're "easier to enforce and allow more species to recover."

Scientists also "believe as much as a third of the wild-caught seafood sold in US was landed by illegal fishing trawlers, undermining efforts to sustainably manage stocks," the Guardian writes. While banning these activities in large swaths of the ocean helps, someone still has to make sure the ban is actually dissuading fishing boats from harvesting the stocks in those waters.

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