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Sharks Winning Shark Week: Obama Acting to Protect America's Oceans

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Photo source: National Geographic/Enric Sala

President Ulysses S. Grant signed the legislation establishing Yellowstone National Park in 1872, making it the first such place preserved for future generations. At the time, there was no real threat of massive industrial development in the region, but forward-thinking conservationists foresaw what could become of this natural treasure and advocated for its protection. Few Americans had ever laid eyes on Old Faithful or the Great Falls, but conservation efforts won the day. The United States is so much richer thanks to that victory.

Few places with this scope of unspoiled wilderness remain within U.S. territory, but a series of them still exist in the central Pacific Ocean. At the U.S. Department of State's Our Ocean conference in June, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry announced the administration's intent to expand the boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument -- established by President George W. Bush in 2009 -- potentially out to the 200 boundary of U.S. jurisdiction.

Such an action would make the Pacific Remote Islands monument the largest network of marine-protected areas anywhere on the planet, preventing industrial activity within an additional 1.74 million square kilometers of ocean space -- an area larger than the states of Texas, California, Montana, and Arizona combined. For those accustomed to measuring by a smaller state, that adds up to roughly 550 Rhode Islands.

Vestiges of late 19th century trade in South American bat guano and of military efforts in the Pacific theater of World War II, the United States controls several uninhabited islands and atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: Jarvis, Wake, Howland, and Baker islands; Kingman Reef; and Johnston and Palmyra atolls. According to international law, America's jurisdiction includes oversight of the waters surrounding the islands and atolls out to 200 nautical miles from their shores, encompassing an area known as the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.

President Bush recognized the inherent value of these unsullied ocean ecosystems. He closed areas 50 square nautical miles around each island to any industrial activity -- including fishing. This single move protected more than 80,000 square miles of some of the most pristine ocean space still remaining anywhere on the planet. But it left vast areas of contiguous ocean space and invaluable resources unprotected.

Size isn't everything, but when it comes to protecting areas of ocean space, scientific evidence dictates that it's a huge contributing factor to the overall success of marine reserves. In this case, the quantity of undisturbed natural resources that would be safeguarded for future generations is unmatched anywhere else on the planet.

The Marine Conservation Institute, in partnership with the National Geographic Society, published a report earlier this year that proposed an expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. The report also catalogued some of these ecosystems' treasures, finding that the part of the EEZ not yet within the monument's boundaries contains nearly 250 underwater mountains, also known as seamounts, that are rich in biodiversity and likely home to thousands of undiscovered species. In addition, the area hosts an abundance of so-called charismatic megafauna -- the critters we love to love -- including numerous kinds of sharks, 22 species of whales and other marine mammals, five types of sea turtles, and millions of migratory seabirds.

Then there are the fish. In addition to conservative members of Congress who perpetually rail against the Obama administration's use of executive authority, the main source of opposition to the proposed expansion has come from the western Pacific fishing industry. Some fishermen and their allies have decried the potential damage that Hawaii's distant-water fishing fleet would suffer if it were shut out of the still-open waters around the current monument's boundaries. But the reality is that, on average, the longline tuna fleet catches only about 5 percent of its fish in this region. Furthermore, since tuna migrate throughout the Pacific, fishermen should be able to recoup these nominal losses elsewhere.

The area's remoteness makes it a challenge to enforce even the existing fishing prohibitions. Yet, expanding the boundaries is not likely to make enforcement more difficult. The U.S. Coast Guard already uses satellite monitoring, regular patrols, and partnerships with the U.S. Navy to ensure foreign vessels are not fishing illegally in waters that remain open to American fishermen. And while these activities are critically underfunded, monument expansion may actually make their job easier in some ways. If all fishing is banned throughout the EEZ, any vessel transiting the area with fishing gear deployed would be engaging in illegal activity -- there would be no need to identify the vessel's nationality.

Regardless of the challenges, these areas are worth protecting. As development pressures increase, industrial activity is expanding to the most remote parts of the globe. Nations are drilling for oil beneath the Arctic ice and in ultradeep water. Seabed mining will soon become a reality elsewhere in the Pacific. It's not just paranoia or wishful thinking -- depending on one's perspective -- to foresee a time when extractive industries could target subsea resources in fragile U.S. waters in the remote Pacific Ocean. Such activities present grave threats to these ecosystems, which are already suffering as a result of ocean warming and acidification.

Yellowstone was once considered too remote to develop. Today, we certainly know better. The establishment of our first national park preserved one of the last great examples of wild habitat in the lower 48 states, harboring iconic species such as bison, grizzly bears, wolves, elk, and pronghorn. The whales, tuna, sea turtles, monk seals, and albatrosses of the South Pacific deserve no less. With so few opportunities left to maintain pristine wilderness on this planet, we must seize this chance or risk losing it forever.

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