Using his presidential power under the American Antiquities Act of 1906, Obama will expand the Pacific Islands National Marine Monument to more than 490,000 square miles, “an area of ocean that’s nearly twice the size of Texas, and that will be protected in perpetuity from commercial fishing and other resource-extraction activities, like deep-water mining.” The area, which is home to numerous species of marine mammals, coral, and predatory fish, will be shielded from most of the harmful effects of the industrialization of the oceans, and will bring added protections to those sections of the marine ecosystem that the administration considers most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. The protected area will include around 250 underwater mountains, which provide a habitat for important concentrations of ocean biodiversity.
Stopping commercial fishing in the Pacific Islands National Marine Monument would decrease the amount of traffic from seafaring vessels, thereby reducing many of the problems caused by human activity in marine ecosystems, including ocean acidification, eutrophication, and bioaccumulation of toxins . Restrictions on commercial activity will also reduce the damage resulting from imbalances within the marine ecosystem caused by overfishing, which is a huge problem in all of the world’s oceans. The harmful effects that human activity has on marine ecosystems are so severe that industrial fishing often wipes out “a tenth of whichever species it targets” within 10 to 15 years. Greenpeace reports that “63% of global fish stocks are now considered overfished.” These rapid declines in the populations of fish species, especially fish that serve as top predators in their respective food chains, cause profound changes to the health of the oceans, which rely on a balance of predatory, prey, and producer species in order to sustain their diverse populations. As an increasingly unbalanced amount of predatory fish species are removed from their habitats by commercial fishing, “they are replaced by smaller, faster-growing species like plankton-feeding fish and shellfish, leading to potentially irreversible shifts in entire ocean ecosystems.”
Fortunately, the expansion of the Pacific Islands National Marine Monument is part of a larger trend of marine conservation that is occurring all over the globe. The creation of marine reserves has become more frequent, and the protected areas are getting larger. The small island nation of Kiribati has restricted commercial fishing in the massive Phoenix Islands Protected Area (designated 2010), which spans around 250,000 square miles. In 2011, a group of governments in Micronesia agreed to create a shark sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean covering over 2 million square miles, which is “equivalent to two-thirds of the land mass of the continental United States.” Just last week, experts from around the globe met in Palau to discuss enforcement strategy for the proposed Palau National Marine Sanctuary.
We can only hope that this trend will continue, starting the long process of restoring the declining health of our oceans.