Climate

Obama Is Working To Protect An Unknown Tropical Paradise

CREDIT: Jim Maragos/USFWS

The pink coral gardens of Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific abound with tropical fish.

It’s common knowledge that the ocean is big. Really big. Covering 70 percent of the planet big. Less well-known, though, is that the United States controls more ocean space than any other country, including some amazing places very few Americans have ever even heard of. That means the U.S. is uniquely positioned to protect some of the last places in the world’s oceans that haven’t already been severely degraded by pollution or overfishing.

Just weeks before he left office, President George W. Bush used his executive authority to protect an area of ocean space out to 50 miles from the shores of each of five groups of uninhabited islands, reefs, and atolls in the far Pacific Ocean. This is real Robinson Crusoe territory; the closest is nearly 1,000 miles from Hawai’i and no island has any permanent human settlements. Marine scientists agree that these areas, collectively known as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, encompass some of the most vibrant and pristine ocean ecosystems left anywhere on the planet.

Back in June at the Our Ocean conference hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, President Barack Obama proposed expanding the boundaries of this natural national treasure. Here are the top five reasons why that action would be such a big deal.

1. Full expansion would create the largest network of marine protected areas in the world, permanently protecting one of the most pristine areas of ocean space on the planet.

marine map

CREDIT: Marine Conservation Institute

Expansion to the full 200-mile limit would mean protection of an additional 750,000 square miles of ocean — an area bigger than Texas, California, Montana, and New Mexico combined. This area hosts a spectacularly diverse array of marine life from whales and sharks to corals and plankton, all in numbers as they existed before the advent of industrial fishing. It includes over 240 undersea mountains that are hot spots of biodiversity, and up to half of the creatures that exist on them are found nowhere else on Earth. Exploratory voyages routinely find new species — in April, biologists identified a new species of whale — and scientists believe these seamounts could host thousands of as-yet-undiscovered critters. This is cool enough from a simple curiosity perspective, but these new life forms could also provide clues to earth’s history or hold the keys to curing diseases.

2. Critically endangered sharks, whales, and sea turtles depend on this area for survival.

The pink coral gardens of Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific abound with tropical fish.

The pink coral gardens of Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific abound with tropical fish.

CREDIT: Jim Maragos/USFWS

One of the reasons we visit National Parks like Shenandoah or Yellowstone is to see wildlife like bison and black bear that struggle to survive outside these protected areas. Expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National would impart this kind of sorely needed protection to the extraordinary birds, mammals, and fish of the Pacific that have few remaining refuges from human activities.

In addition to the newly discovered Palmyra beaked whale, more than 20 other types of marine mammals inhabit the waters around the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands. The area also hosts a remarkable array of sharks, including endangered silky and oceanic whitetip sharks. Closing this area to fishing activity will prevent these animals as well as endangered sea turtles and seabirds from being inadvertently killed by the longlines and purse seine nets used to target tuna. In 2012, 95 percent of the silky sharks caught by U.S. fishermen and 70 percent of the oceanic whitetips were taken in the areas around the Pacific Remote Islands, even though in an average year, the Hawai’i distant-water tuna fleet catches less than five percent of its fish in this area.

3. Expansion will strengthen U.S. fisheries and help crack down on illegal foreign fishing.

The tuna industry has expressed concerns about losing access to these areas if President Obama designates a full expansion. However, U.S. fishermen already have exclusive or access to more ocean space than their competitors in any other nation, and since tuna are highly migratory species, fishermen will be able to replace the fish they currently catch by targeting them in other areas. Furthermore, studies about marine protected areas clearly show that they benefit fisheries by protecting concentrations of fish populations. When fish can safely gather together to spawn, they produce more offspring that then spill over into fishable areas outside the protected zone. In essence, protected areas can serve as living fish factories that can sustain fishermen into the future.

Big eye tuna being transferred from a fishing boat in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Big eye tuna being transferred from a fishing boat in Honolulu, Hawaii.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eugene Tanner

In addition, expansion of the protected area will actually make it easier for fishery managers and the Coast Guard to identify and prevent illegal fishing activity. Pirate fishing currently costs the global fishing industry about $23 billion per year, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Currently, enforcers must determine whether a vessel is American or foreign and whether it’s following regulations before intervening. If fishing is prohibited, any vessel spotted fishing will become a target.

4. These islands and their resources are fundamental to marine science and historic Pacific Island culture.

President Obama’s proposal has been met with resounding support from the scientists, industries, and conservation groups — letters of support have come from more than 200 scientists, 35 Hawai’i businesses like dive and surf shops, and 40 national conservation groups and foundations. More than 135,000 U.S. citizens sent messages of support to the White House during the public comment period. Over 200 Native Hawaiians joined a letter of support, and several of them traveled from multiple Hawaiian islands to testify in favor of expansion at a public meeting Honolulu last month. They included Noelle M. K. Y. Kahanu, the granddaughter of George Hawae Kahanu, Sr., one of the last surviving members of a band of 130 young Hawaiian men sent to colonize Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands in 1935. She called for full protection not only for scientific and conservation purposes, but also to “understand their significance to the peoples of Oceania.”

5. Bold U.S. action on ocean conservation will drive commitments from other nations.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Republic of Palau President Tommy Remengesau participate in the State Department's 'Our Ocean' conference in Washington, June 17, 2014.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Republic of Palau President Tommy Remengesau participate in the State Department’s ‘Our Ocean’ conference in Washington, June 17, 2014.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Cliff Owen

The United States is not the only nation moving to protect its ocean resources. At Secretary of State John Kerry’s international ‘Our Ocean’ conference, President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. of the island nation of Palau announced he had set aside nearly 200,000 square miles, 80 percent of his country’s ocean territory, as a no-fishing zone.

President Anote Tong of Kiribati announced he was closing the Phoenix Islands Protected Area and the region around the Southern Line Islands to commercial fishing, as well — putting another 165,000 square miles off-limits. America is widely viewed as a leader on conservation issues. Its fishery management regime is regarded as the strongest in the world, and helped inspire the European Union to clean up its fishery act last year. Bold action to protect irreplaceable ecosystems can help inspire additional action on the part of other nations which as a collective can help stem the tide of ocean degradation and ensure these resources are protected for generations to come.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Matt Lee-Ashley, Director of the Public Lands Project, and Shiva Polefka, Policy Analyst, contributed.