US Creates Largest Marine Sanctuary in the World

The Pew Charitable Trusts applauded President Barack Obama’s decision today [September 25] to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, a group of five highly protected reserves that is home to some of the nation’s most important ocean wilderness (source: Pew Press Release, titled “Obama Administration Expands Protection of U.S. Ocean Treasure: Decision significantly advances global ocean conservation”):

The president extended the boundaries around three of the monument’s five marine reserves—Johnston Atoll, Wake Atoll, and Jarvis Island—from the area 50 miles from shore, designated by President George W. Bush in 2009, to 200 miles from shore. Taken together, the expanded protections for the waters around these atolls and islands—which are not contiguous—provide approximately an additional 408,000 square miles (approximately 1,050,000 square kilometers) to the monument. This action is the latest in a global movement to create large, highly protected marine reserves to counter the dramatic declines in ocean health caused by overfishing, pollution, and development, as well as the emerging challenges associated with climate change.

“This marks an important day for ocean conservation in this country,” said Matt Rand, who leads Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy project, which advocates for establishment of the world’s great marine parks. “The expansion of these marine reserves will greatly enhance the footprint of protection already there and with it, support a vast array of sea life that inhabits one of the most pristine ocean systems remaining on Earth.”

With this announcement, the amount of U.S. ocean territory highly protected has more than doubled, from about 6 percent to 15 percent. The expanded Johnston Atoll, Wake Atoll, and Jarvis Island marine reserves rank third, fourth, and sixth in size, respectively, among the world’s highly protected marine reserves. Research shows that highly protected marine reserves are essential to rebuilding the abundance and diversity of ocean species and increasing the resilience of habitats and ecosystems to climate change. Healthy oceans also have a greater ability to sequester carbon dioxide and generate oxygen.

“Today’s action by the president protects some of the world’s most important ocean habitats and provides sanctuary for rare and endangered sharks, seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals,” said Rand. “We hope the steps taken today by the U.S. government will accelerate similar actions by a growing list of coastal nations to protect more of the world’s great ocean treasures.”

Spread over a swath of ocean thousands of miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands, the island and atoll areas that make up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument are distant, uninhabited, and teeming with wildlife. A unique ocean environment, these waters are home to hundreds of seamounts, or undersea mountains, as well as spectacular coral ecosystems that provide vital breeding, nursery, and feeding grounds for whales, sea turtles, fish, and millions of seabirds.

President Obama announced on June 17, 2014, that he planned to expand protections for the monument President Bush had designated five years earlier under the Antiquities Act. The U.S. government’s public consultation this summer saw strong public support for expanding and fully protecting these waters. More than 135,000 U.S. citizens, including Hawaiian residents, business owners, and nonprofit organization representatives, sent messages supporting the plan. Many Hawaiian and Pacific leaders also voiced strong support.

Over the past decade, the Global Ocean Legacy project has worked around the world with governments, scientists, fishermen, and residents to create the first generation of great marine parks. Those efforts have resulted in the protection of nearly 1.4 million square miles (nearly 3.6 million square kilometers) of ocean. In recent years, historic marine conservation decisions have been made by the United States in designating the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 2006, by the United Kingdom in establishing the Chagos Marine Reserve—the world’s largest—in the Indian Ocean in 2010, and by Australia in designating the Coral Sea Marine Park in 2012.

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President Obama signed a proclamation on September 25, 2014, designating the largest marine reserve in the world. The proclamation expands the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, one of the most pristine tropical marine environments in the world, to six times its current size, resulting in 370,000 square nautical miles (490,000 square miles) of protected area around these tropical islands and atolls in the south-central Pacific Ocean. Expanding the Monument will more fully protect the deep coral reefs, seamounts, and marine ecosystems unique to this part of the world, which are also among the most vulnerable areas to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification (Wikipedia: Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument)

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The previous (2011) boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument are outlined in light blue. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is a group of unorganized, mostly unincorporated United States Pacific Island territories managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the United States Department of the Interior. These remote refuges are “the most widespread collection of marine- and terrestrial-life protected areas on the planet under a single country’s jurisdiction”. They protect many endemic species including corals, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, seabirds, water birds, land birds, insects, and vegetation not found elsewhere. (Ibid.)

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Susan White, Monument Superintendent, holding a young red-footed booby, 2014. The islands have no indigenous inhabitants. Wake had a population of ca. 150 military personnel in 2009. Johnston Atoll had a peak population of 1,100 military and civilian contractor personnel in 2000, but it was evacuated by 2007. Four to twenty Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff live at Palmyra Atoll. The four other islands are usually uninhabited. Public entry to the islands is by special-use permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is generally restricted to scientists and educators. Only Palmyra Atoll has a serviceable runway; Baker Island, Howland Island, and Johnston Atoll had airstrips in earlier times but they have since been abandoned and are no longer operational (Ibid.)