Healthy oceans are vital, not just for the creatures who live in them, but for human populations the world over. However climate change, overfishing, ocean acidification, and pollution have combined to push ocean health to the brink. That’s why the announcement that President Obama will be hugely expanding the area of ocean under full protection is a huge step forward for everybody.
The announcement would expand an already-existing ocean sanctuary — the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument — from about 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles. True to its name, the sanctuary is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the near-pristine waters surrounding remote islands controlled by the U.S.
The sanctuary will now be the world’s biggest, and it just about doubles the entire global area of ocean under full protection. The expansion would mean five times more underwater mountains will be protected. It will end tuna fishing in the area, as well as providing safe harbor to whales and other marine mammals, sea turtles, and sharks.
Needless to say, objections from fishing and extraction industries are forthcoming.
Really, it’s a good thing. The U.S. controls more of the sea than any other nation, and by a long shot. It’s good to see a government with such influence taking oceans seriously and protecting vital habitat for future generations.
But you won’t hear the sound of champagne popping coming from the Greenpeace offices. There’s a lot this expansion doesn’t do — and we’re going to keep on pressing.
For starters, the Bering Sea canyons near Alaska support one of the most productive ecosystems in our oceans but are still completely unprotected. Sensitive coral and sponge habitats are being destroyed by the wanton practices of factory fishing. Protecting these cold water canyons would be a great complement to Obama’s plans in the tropical Pacific.
And although it’s great to see sanctuaries established in U.S. waters, we hope to see the Obama administration take a leadership role in championing protections for the high seas, those areas that are controlled by no nation (and are therefore plundered by everybody). There is already wide international support for a new high seas biodiversity agreement. Support from the U.S. may be enough to tip the balance.
Make no mistake: if this sanctuary expansion actually happens, it’s a big deal and makes us happy. But considering just how dire the plight of the oceans are right now, we hope we can be forgiven for not taking a breather.