On Thursday, the White House announced that it would increase the size of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument by sixfold. The marine protected area (MPA) will now be three times larger than the state of California.
President Obama first proposed extending the borders of the MPA in June. Currently measuring 83,000 square miles, Obama’s original proposal would have boosted that to 782,000 – larger than the state of Alaska. The official expansion will be nearly 490,000 square miles, a compromise with commercial fishermen that still extends protected areas around Wake Island, Johnston Atoll and Jarvis Island from 50 to 200 miles offshore.
This announcement follows several sweeping environmental initiatives passed during the UN climate summit, and is intended to preserve the region’s rich biodiversity, safeguarding endangered seabirds and turtles, sharks, beaked whales, manta rays and deep sea corals.
As Secretary of State John Kerry explained this past summer, “The bottom line is that most people don’t realize that if the entire world doesn’t come together to try to change course and protect the ocean from unsustainable fishing practices, unprecedented pollution, or the devastating effects of climate change, then we run the risk of fundamentally breaking entire ecosystems.”
Drilling and development will be prohibited within the MPA, along with commercial fishing and dumping. Recreational fishing will be allowed, as well as boating.
Prior to its official creation, Planet Expert Dana Murray, a Marine & Coastal Scientist at Heal the Bay, lauded the President’s initiative. An experienced diver, Murray says the contrast between diving in protected and unprotected areas is unmistakeable.
“When you dive outside an MPA versus inside, it’s a very stark difference,” she explained. “Inside an MPA you’re going to see bigger marine life, more abundant marine life, more diversity. After diving in California for a decade, I’ve started to see an improvement in our marine life health in MPAs.”
The real challenge, says Murray, will be management of this vast area.
“My hope is that with large MPAs that they’re also going to have enforcement and good management,” she said, “because if you just have a paper park – which just exists on paper but nothing else is being done – it doesn’t really matter.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Maggie Smith, National Geographic Staff. Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildife Service; USGS; Marine Conservation Institute