Win for Climate Protection as Obama Creates World's Biggest Marine Sanctuary

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Win for Climate Protection as Obama Creates World's Biggest Marine Sanctuary

It is "one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans."

  Milletseed butterflyfishes in 2009 in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  Credit: Greg McFall (Photo: NOAA's National Ocean Service/flickr/cc)

President Barack Obama's creation on Friday of the world's largest marine protected area drew praise from lawmakers, Hawaiian community members, and environmental groups alike, who say it will help protect biodiversity and increase resilience in the face of climate change.

Obama is expanding the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, more than quadrupling it in size to 582,578 square miles.

A White House fact sheet says the expansion, which also bans commercial resource extraction, will afford "critical protections for more than 7,000 marine species," "improve ocean resilience," and help preserve "resources of great historical and cultural significance."

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who was among those who had proposed the expansion to the president, praised the move, calling it "one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans." He noted, however, that it was "only beginning" because "management, research, educational opportunities, and enforcement" need to follow.

Similarly welcoming the move was Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), who said the expansion "will help to combat climate change, preserve biodiversity, and honor cultural traditions."

Calling it "a bold decision that will have lasting benefits for Hawaii's unique ecosystem," Greenpeace oceans campaign director John Hocevar said, "Setting aside areas closed to fishing, drilling, and other extractive uses is the best way to protect biodiversity, rebuild depleted fish populations, and increase the resilience of marine ecosystems so they can better withstand the impacts of climate change."

Yet, he added, "Bolder steps are still needed" as "Less than two percent of the world's oceans are protected from fishing, and many scientists suggest a target of 40 percent."

That target, he continued, "in remote areas as well as those closer to home—will help preserve the health of our oceans and our communities."

Our direction

Thousands of signatures had already been delivered to call for the expansion.

Ashley Watts, a marine biologist, wrote that it "would not only protect critical ocean resources at a time when they're under threat, it would also be the best thing in the long run for fishermen and lovers of Hawaii seafood." The calls came from younger community members as well, like five-year-old Zeke from Maui who said the expansion would "help protect our ocean and sea life," or a 14-year-old who argued that "every generation that comes is responsible for protecting this Earth that is all of our homes."

Other communities members stressed a different point: "I believe the United States has a moral obligation to protect the resources in that area for the time when the United States de-occupies our nation so we can resume control of what is actually ours," said one man at a public forum.

Obama's announcement comes just ahead of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, which will be convening in Honolulu, and a day after the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday.

Papahānaumokuākea was first declared a national monument in 2006 by President George W. Bush, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. A press statement from the Department of the Interior explains that Papahānaumokuākea's "biological and geographic isolation, coupled with singular oceanographic and geological conditions, have produced some of the most unique and diverse ecological communities on the planet."

Marine life scored another win this week when Chile created the 186,433 square-mile Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park. "In times when oceans are hit by the overexploitation of species, pollution, and phenomena such as climate change, the protection of these islands means a great step forward for oceans in Chile and the rest of the world," said Liesbeth van der Meer, executive director of Oceana Chile.

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