Marine Sanctuaries and the Future of Our Ocean

 

Johnston AtollJohnston Atoll National Wildlife (courtesy Jim Maragos/USFWS)

On Tuesday, President Obama announced his proposal to expand a marine sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean, a move that could double all of the world’s protected ocean.

By using his executive authority to add protected areas to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the President intends to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in a threatened expanse of the south-central Pacific Ocean. According to The Washington Post, the existing protected areas in the monument may be enlarged by nearly 700,000 square miles. The plan will not be finalized before the White House consults with outside groups, including environmentalists and the fishing industry.

“The Pacific Remote Islands Monument is an important part of the most widespread collection of marine life on the planet under a single country's jurisdiction,” describes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The monument includes seven small islands controlled by the U.S. and some of the most diverse coral reefs in the central Pacific. Protections would extend 200 miles offshore of each of the islands, blocking fishing and other tampering activities in these pristine ecosystems.

Many endangered species of fish, crustaceans, turtles, and marine mammals in need of protection exist in this unique ecosystem. It is only the latest of the President’s efforts to safeguard natural environments, though his first major step for marine conservation.

The President's announcement follows a recent decision by NOAA to reopen the process for Americans to nominate new marine sanctuaries. That decision opens the door for the public to protect places and preserve the health of marine communities in the continental U.S. Presidential advisor John Podesta announced the new policy on June 10th.

“Our national marine sanctuaries not only protect special places... but they promote responsible and sustainable ocean uses to protect the health of our oceans for future generations,” said NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D.

This rule is a momentous step forward in the efforts to preserve America’s enduring natural history. It will help propel forward several important marine sanctuary proposals such as the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, where the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter has worked with the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and other grassroots organizations toward nominating a new National Marine Sanctuary. Maintaining these spaces is vital to the continuation of the region’s historical and cultural legacy.

The State Department also held the "Our Ocean” Conference this week. The conference drew international science, policy, business, and environmental leaders to Washington D.C. to discuss future collaborative efforts to protect the ocean.

“The ocean fuels our trade, it provides much of the food we eat, the air we breathe. It is home to vast, extraordinary ecosystems… but today this incredible resource is threatened by unsustainable fishing, pollution, climate change,” announced Secretary of State John Kerry about the conference’s intentions. “There can be no doubt that the ocean requires our protection, and our collective action.”

These efforts indicate Obama’s willingness to give due attention to critical environmental priorities. Along with this marine protection, the President has invoked executive orders 11 times to protect American lands. In May, the President designated the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks as a National Monument. He cited the importance of preserving natural spaces for our cultural and natural history as a driving factor in this action.

These new safeguards and promises are building Obama’s renown as an environmental champion. His administration’s recent actions also indicate his respect for the public’s demand for responsible environmental policy.

However, there is still much work to be done.

At the “Our Ocean” Conference, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman made vows to work on several key policy issues related to fishing regulation.

"We are also seeking, in [the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)], ground-breaking commitments to protect our oceans – commitments never seen before in a trade agreement,” Froman said at the conference, mentioning efforts to advance sustainable fisheries management and combat illegal fishing.

However promising these statements may be, they don’t seem to match a leaked draft of the TPP's environment chapter from earlier this year that reveals weak language on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish. We hope that Froman and the Obama administration will make good on their verbal pledges and work to strengthen this language. Making fair trade deals to protect the environment, including species of fish and other wildlife, will continue to build President Obama's environmental legacy.

“This [Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks] designation will be a recognition that, like the cultural and historic sites already protected by President Obama, our country’s wide open spaces and large natural areas are an important part of the American story,” said Sierra Club Director Michael Brune in May. Both on-shore and off, special places and threatened wildlife still need the protection that federal action can provide. Given the President’s momentum, this great work is just the jumping-off point.

 -- Stephanie Steinbrecher