President Obama Expands and Creates Groundbreaking Marine National Monuments

By Kate Hawthorne, Staff Writer

On August 26, 2016, President Obama announced the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea (pronounced papa-ha-now-moh-koo-ah-kay-ah) Marine National Monument in Hawaii.

Papahanaumokuakea was established under President George W. Bush in 2006.  At 140,000 square miles, it was the largest marine reserve at that time, and is home to more than 7,000 species, as well as the world’s oldest living animal, a black coral estimated to be 4,500 years old.  President Obama more than quadrupled the size of the monument, expanding it by 583,000 square miles.

Rachel Merz, a Professor of Marine Biology at Swarthmore, explains the ecological benefits of expanding the reserve. “Tropical islands are of special conservation importance because of their high proportion of endemic species…, so protecting a whole tropical island chain [which this expansion does] makes it much more likely that a wide diversity of organisms… will be sheltered.”

This expansion is important from a political standpoint as well as environmental standpoint. Professor Don Barber of Bryn Mawr says, “For better or worse, high-level policy statements…  matter, because they express the values, knowledge and understanding of … society. … President Obama’s sweeping expansion of a Pacific National Marine Monument expresses that we [US citizens…] value the ocean and hope to protect it….”

Less than a month later, President Obama   announced the creation of another momentous marine reserve—the first one of its kind in the Atlantic Ocean. This monument, called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, is roughly the size of Connecticut and is located off the coast of Cape Cod. It encompasses four seamounts and three marine canyons and is home to several endangered species, including sperm whales, fin whales, sei whales, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, ancient deep-sea coral and species of fish unique to the region. According to The New York Times, the monument is in an area of the Atlantic where ocean temperatures are projected to warm as much as three times as fast as the global average, making these species even more endangered.

Barber elaborated on the importance of this site. “The move to protect large areas in two very different regions of the ocean underscores that we value and consider it important to protect a diversity of marine habitats. … While the expanded Pacific region holds some coral atolls that we often consider ‘pristine tropical paradise,’ the new site in the Northwest Atlantic is rather different due to its higher latitude.”

The expansions have caused concern among the fishing industries. Fisherman in the Pacific fear that the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea to include territory previously used for fishing will hurt the fishing industry. Atlantic fishing, lobster and red crab industries are not thrilled with the establishment of the new reserve near Cape Cod, predicting that it will likely hurt their economic yield. To mitigate this effect, the lobster and crab industries will be  given a seven-year grace period before they will be required to stop all proceedings in the area.

Both marine reserves were created under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows the president to create national monuments in order to protect natural, cultural or scientific entities. During his administration, Obama has used this act to protect hundreds of millions of acres—more than any other president.

His actions have caused a great deal of contention among Republicans who believe he is abusing his power. This is likely because “both actions weigh long-term values more heavily than short-term economic benefits,” as Professor Carol Hager of Bryn Mawr points out. “It is difficult to do this in normal policy making because of the power that interest groups have in our legislative system … There is always a trade-off between use for immediate, usually economic benefit and preservation value for generalized, not always economically quantifiable benefit. In this case there will be long-term economic benefits in that the oceans will become more resilient against climate change. However, as President Obama pointed out, it’s about more than that. These unique, beautiful seascapes are part of who we are.”

The results of expanding and establishing these marine reserves may not be immediate, but they are valuable enough to grab our attention. “We should care…if we care about having a healthy planet with a diversity of species.” Professor Joshua Moses of Haverford says. Hager says, “You should care because this is your legacy. The long term is where your children will live. What kind of world do you want them to live in?”

Everyone should be expected to do their part to keep these unique ecosystems from being lost. Merz notes, “We all make dozens of small decisions in a day that impact natural systems … Over our lifetimes and over the lifetimes of the people we influence those small decisions add up to big differences … Being conscious of the environmental consequences of those … decisions is a responsibility we share.”

From the print edition published on Oct. 5, 2016

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