The executive energy on the environment may be one of the biggest silver linings of the gridlock in Congress. Yesterday, Obama announced plans to to ban commercial fishing and drilling in an vast area of the Pacific, a move that would double the amount of the world’s protected ocean:
The area covered by the proposal would bring the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to a total 782,000 square miles. It is currently about 87,000 square miles, surrounding seven islands in the Central Pacific that are controlled by the United States. Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, tells the Washington Post this area is “the closest thing I’ve seen to the pristine ocean.”
The administration expects to face off with commercial fishermen over the proposal. The area is used by tuna fishermen, accounting for 3 percent of their total tuna catch in the Western and Central Pacific each year. In order to combat the opposition, the Commerce and Interiors Department will study and hear from the public in regards to fishing in this area over the summer.
Allie Wilkinson describes the location:
The reserve is home to a rich array of wildlife, including large predatory fishes such as commercially valuable tuna, swordfish and marlin, five species of sea turtles, 22 species of protected marine mammals, and several million seabirds of 19 species. The reefs surrounding two of the islands – Kingman and Palmyra – are believed to contain the greatest known biomass of fish, and representation of apex predators, of any studied coral reef system on earth, according to Pew. …
The region is also home to countless species that scientists have yet to discover and describe. With the expansion of the monument, an estimated 241 seamounts—submerged mountain peaks – are expected to be under protection. Each one typically harbors many new species that are new to science.
Amelia Urry is cautiously optimistic:
It’s a little early to declare victory – this announcement is merely a proposal, to be followed by a public comment period that will end later this year, hopefully with the official expansion of the reserve. But [yesterday’s] announcement – coming on the tails of Capitol Hill Ocean Week and John Kerry’s “Our Ocean” conference in D.C. and the announcement of a new public nomination process for marine sanctuaries and a crackdown on seafood fraud – might signal a turning of the tides. (What, you thought you’d get out of this without seaing a pun?)
Or you could look at it another way: Small island nations like Palau and Kiribati have set aside their own swaths of sea as marine sanctuaries, and the U.K. is considering doing the same to the area around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific. We may have taken our time about it, but it looks like we’re finally embracing the healthy spirit of competition to massively outdo all of them.
Predictably, some conservatives are up in arms:
Republicans claim Obama is abusing his executive powers. “It’s another example of this imperial presidency,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings told the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin. “If there are marine sanctuaries that should be put in place, that should go through Congress.” However, the Antiquities Act of 1906 lets the president protect marine monuments without congressional approval. Bush used that authority on four occasions during his administration, including the creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Juliet Eilperin points to more precedent:
Both Republican and Democratic presidents have used their executive authority to safeguard parts of the Pacific Ocean for more than a century. Theodore Roosevelt started it when he placed Midway Island under the protection of the Navy to stop the killing of seabirds there for their eggs and feathers, and then he helped usher through the Antiquities Act of 1906 to ensure his successors would also have the power to provide heightened protections for federal land and waters without congressional approval. Later presidents, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, imposed additional restrictions. George W. Bush established the national monument Obama now intends to expand.