President Obama has signed a proclamation which will make the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument the largest marine reserve in the world.

MAGGIE SMITH, NG STAFF. SOURCES: U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE; USGS; MARINE CONSERVATION INSTITUTE

Up until now, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument was a group of unorganized, mostly unincorporated United States Pacific Island territories managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. They host many important species, including corals, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, seabirds, water birds, land birds, insects, and vegetation not found elsewhere; now, they have been declared “the most widespread collection of marine- and terrestrial-life protected areas on the planet under a single country’s jurisdiction”.

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument will now measure nearly 490,000 square miles (1.3 million square km), six times its initial size, and about 3 times as big as Germany. It will also be bigger than all the natural on-land parks in the US combined. So what does being a Marine Park entail?

Well, a Marine Park is a park consisting of an area of sea (or lake) sometimes protected for recreational use, but more often set aside to preserve a specific habitat and ensure the ecosystem is sustained for the organisms that exist there. So the main purpose is to preserve the habitat and ensure the sustainability of the ecosystem. To this end, commercial fishing, dumping, and mining will be prohibited in the reserve. However, recreational fishing is still allowed – with permits.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

“What has happened is extraordinary. It is history making. There is a lot of reason we should be celebrating right now,” said Elliott Norse, founder and chief scientist of the Seattle-based Marine Conservation Institute.

Enric Sala, an ocean scientist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, called the newly expanded monument “a great example of marine protection.” Indeed, even if the protected area is smaller than the 782,000 square miles initially considered. Senator Kerry declared:

“We’re committed to protecting more of the world’s ocean. Today, one to three percent of the ocean is protected, that’s it. That’s why President Obama will sign a proclamation today that will create one of the largest maritime protected areas in the world. It will be protected in perpetuity.”

Indeed, this decision seemed to please everybody except the big fishing companies. Fishing stocks have been harvested unsustainably throughout the world’s oceans, and this type of proclamation is way overdue, if we want to maintain fish stocks and help preserve pristine marine ecosystems. Allowing recreational fishing, which doesn’t have a major impact on the habitat was also hailed.

“Going back to his first campaign, the President has said that his agenda regarding access to public lands is going to be one that ensures the outdoors is available to the next generation,” said American Sportfishing Association President and CEO Mike Nussman.
“Acknowledging that recreational fishing is a sustainable use of a public resource, especially in one as pristine and special as this area of the Pacific, is a distinction for which the recreational fishing community has been advocating for many years. We thank the administration for making the distinction between a recreational activity that millions of Americans enjoy each day and commercial fishing.”

A young Hawaiin Monk Seal and a Green Sea Turtle are both species that will be protected as part of the proclamation. Image credits: Refugee Association.

As you’d expect for a planet mostly covered by water, most of the world’s biodiversity is in waters. However, because we live on land, we focus more on protecting land than water – out of sight, out of mind. But we have a moral duty – towards the ecosystems, future generations, and towards our own conservation – to preserve the oceans. David Helvarg, the author of several books on the ocean and the founder of the advocacy group Blue Frontier Campaign says:

“Although 71 percent of our planet is covered with saltwater, we have protected much more of the land than the ocean,” Helvarg said. But the newly expanded monument is a big step in the right direction, he added.

It’s all good to declare Marine Parks, but how do you actually enforce the measures? When you’re dealing with such a huge and remote area, how do you make sure that there are no criminals abusing the park?

 “Agreements won’t matter if no one is enforcing them,” senator Kerry acknowledged. It’s going to take training and resources.”

Personally, I think this is a remarkable achievement – and while it may take a while, and a lot of money to actually enforce these measures, the long term benefit will severely outweigh the costs. Give us more Marine Parks… more !

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