Update: In September 2014, a smaller version of the reserve was formally established.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced a plan to create the world's largest ocean reserve in the Pacific. The proposal would double the total amount of ocean worldwide that's protected from commercial fishing, oil drilling, and other activities.
The exact boundaries aren't set yet, but the new reserve will be an enormous expansion to the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument — a cluster of reserves surrounding seven unpopulated islands south and west of Hawaii that currently total about 86,888 square miles. After the expansion, the reserve would cover an estimated 782,000 square miles in total, according to the Washington Post — an area bigger than the state of Alaska.
Like the new rules on carbon dioxide emissions announced earlier this month, Obama is using his executive authority here under existing law, rather than relying on Congress. In particular, he's relying on the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows the president to protect government lands of historic or scientific interest.
The proposal came as part of a State Department oceans conference, and was accompanied by another major oceans announcement, detailing a new federal program to combat illegal fishing. At the moment, there's no drilling and not that much fishing in the newly protected area — so the reserve won't be hugely impactful at the start — but it is a big step forward in proactively protecting marine habitats on a massive scale.
How the new reserve will work
In 2009, President Bush designated the original Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, along with several other protected areas in the Pacific. The protected monument was made up of the ocean surrounding seven different remote Pacific islands and atolls under US control, and extended 50 miles out from their shores.
International law gives each country control over the marine resources in the waters extending 200 miles off its coasts. Obama's plan is for the reserve to use every mile of it, extending protected waters to cover the full 200 mile distance.
In doing so, he would put nearly nine times as much ocean under protection. The precise boundaries still aren't set, and input from scientists, politicians, and fishermen during a public comment period this summer will be taken into account before the reserve is officially expanded later this year.
Inside the national monument area, all commercial fishing, resource extraction, and waste dumping are illegal. Bush made an exception for sport fishing when he designated the original monument, and it's seems like this will apply to the new area too.
There isn't currently any oil drilling or mining in this area, so the main effect of the expansion will be a cut down on fishing. Tuna fishing, in particular, will be impacted: the Washington Post reports that up to 3 percent of the yearly US tuna catch in the western and central Pacific comes from the area that would go under protection.
The ecological case for expanding the reserve
There are a few sets of reasons for the new expansion, but the most obvious rationale is ecological. These marine monuments are the ocean equivalent of national parks — areas of relative wilderness heavily protected from human use.
The area covered by the new reserve features a large number of fish, marine mammal, coral, bird, and plant species that aren't found anywhere else in the world. There are also many endangered species, such as the hawksbill sea turtle and the humphead wrasse.
Two of the areas (Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef) have higher levels of coral diversity than anywhere else in the central Pacific. The expansion would also add about 200 underwater mountains called seamounts — known to be areas of high biodiversity — to the 50 or so currently under protection in the reserve.
While these are remote areas that don't suffer heavily from local pollution or commercial fishing, there are some tuna fleets that operate in the area. They typically use purse seining techniques, which involve tightening a net around a school of fish attracted to something called a fish aggregating device. In many cases, this technique produces high amounts of bycatch — fish from other, unintended species that are discarded — so tuna fishing can deplete all sorts of fish species in an ecosystem.
More importantly, though, the reserve is a proactive step in protecting these areas from future fishing. As the world continues to eat its shrinking fish stocks, scientists have stressed the importance of expanding protected marine areas, both to preserve endangered species and give the 85 percent of commonly-eaten fish stocks that are over-exploited a place to regenerate.
Research has shown that reserves help revive fish stocks in nearby, non-protected areas. It's also shown that large reserves — like the one proposed on Tuesday — are especially effective, because species can move about them freely.
Currently, only about three percent of U.S. territorial waters are protected from commercial fishing, and 95 percent of that area lies within the nearby Papahānaumokuākea National Monument, also established by President Bush in 2009. In total, about 0.5 percent of the world's oceans are protected from fishing.
The new reserve would dwarf existing US reserves, and roughly double the amount of ocean we've protected as a species. It comes as part of a recent global trend of protecting more and more ocean, with the island nation of Kiribati most recently banning fishing throughout their 164,200 square mile reserve.
The political case for expanding the reserve
As easy as the case for ecological protection is, the truth is that one of the main reasons President Obama is announcing this plan is likely because it's a fairly painless, politically.
For one, it's relatively straightforward to do. Like Obama's previous executive orders, it doesn't require congressional approval. Some Republican opponents have already criticized the move as an abuse of executive powers, but the only way it could realistically be stopped is if Congress repealed the Antiquities Act, a very unlikely outcome.
Moreover, Obama's following in the footsteps of George W. Bush, who used the same law to establish three marine monuments in 2009. Until now, Bush had protected more ocean than anyone in history — a record likely to be broken by Obama.
What's more, this area of ocean is remote. It's home to virtually zero people, and even though there is a bit of commercial fishing, it's not exactly a hotbed of activity for the industry. Fishing interests are still likely to object during the comment period, and might perhaps succeed in whittling down the protected area slightly, but it's far easier to protect remote stretches of the Pacific ocean than, say, oil-rich water right off the mainland.