President Obama used his executive authority on June 17 to create the world's largest marine sanctuary. This has huge implications for the environment, as it bans commercial fishing, mining, and oil exploration in a major portion of the Pacific Ocean. The move will bypass Republican lawmakers who have long acted as roadblocks to environmental struggles, and could protect up to 800,000 square miles of the south-central Pacific from commercial and corporate exploitation.
To this end, the Obama administration also announced the development of a new task force that will combat illegal fishing operations in the Pacific. The President will also consult with scientists and conservationists before determining the precise location and geographic scope of the sanctuary. It will, however, border and vastly expand the areas around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which was established back in 2009 and placed 77,020 square miles under the protection of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Obama also sought to add more national monuments. In a continuation of his use of executive power, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, he will designate 11 new national monuments on land across the U.S., allowing a plethora of new protections for millions of acres of precious wilderness.
"We can protect our oceans for future generations," said the President. "Growing up in Hawaii, I learned to appreciate the beauty and power of the ocean. And like Presidents Clinton and Bush before me, I'm going to use my authority as President to protect some of our most precious marine landscapes, just like we do for mountains and rivers and forests."
The move came directly on the heels of a bold and direct speech by Obama during a commencement address at the University of California-Irvine on June 14. During that address, the President openly criticized the obstinance of Republicans who denied the threat of climate change and the need to defend the environment. He encouraged young voters to speak out about environmentalism and reiterated the need to get legislation passed to change things for the better. With this plan for what will be the largest protected marine area in history, it would seem that Obama is showing he has lived up to his words.
The White House's new task force is part and parcel of Obama's new initiative. It will be called the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud, and will report to the National Ocean Council, which itself was established via executive order in 2010.
Obama explained that illegal and unregulated fishing in the Pacific continues to "undermine the economic and environmental sustainability of fisheries and fish stocks. Global losses attributable to the black market from such fishing are estimated to be $10-23 billion annually, weakening profitability for legally caught seafood, fueling illegal trafficking operations, and undermining economic opportunity for legitimate fishermen in the U.S. and around the world."
Meanwhile, anti-environment Republicans and corporate oil executives are likely seething over the development of the marine sanctuary. Thousands of square miles of what oil companies see as potential territory for offshore drilling will now be closed off to them. And in addition to defending the waters from such tampering, the area's tuna and other fish stocks will be able to recover and increase their numbers.
Obama made the announcement at a State Department Our Ocean conference; amongst the attendees was actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who had been strongly pushing for such a move and had previously donated $3 million to the Oceana conservation group. He declared he would now donate an additional $7 million over the next two years to "meaningful ocean protection" and to bolster the President's move.
DiCaprio called the interference of oil corporations and illegal fishing markets "the Wild West on the high seas," and called for "an end to the incessant plundering of the ocean and its vital resources." He added that this is a worldwide problem, remarking, "Since my very first dive in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia 20 years ago, to the dive I got to do in the very same location just two years ago, I've witnessed environmental devastation firsthand. What once looked like an endless underwater utopia is now riddled with bleached coral reefs and massive dead zones."
Secretary of State John Kerry added, "Most people think the ocean is larger than life; an endless resource impossible to destroy. But people underestimate the enormous damage that we as humans are inflicting upon the ocean every day."
Photo: Actor Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the Our Ocean conference, applauding Obama's marine sanctuary initiative and donating $7 million to ocean protection and conservation. Cliff Owen/AP