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President Obama today announced plans to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean, significantly expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which was created by President George W. Bush in 2009.
The designation would make the area off limits to fishing and energy exploration, and would double the area of ocean that is fully protected worldwide.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks to Enric Sala, an oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who is at the State Department’s “Our Oceans” conference in Washington, D.C.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, in other news today, President Obama announced plans to use his executive authority to create the world's largest marine sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean. This would make a significant portion of the remote Central Pacific off-limits to fishing and energy exploration and it would double the area of ocean that is fully protected worldwide. Joining us from the State Department's Our Ocean Conference in Washington, where the president announced the plans by video link this morning, is Enric Sala, an oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Enric, welcome.
ENRIC SALA: Hello, Jeremy. Happy to be here.
HOBSON: Well, you've been to some of these areas that the president is trying to protect. Describe them. What do they look like? Where are they?
SALA: Well, going to these places is like getting in a time machine and going back hundreds of years. These are places where humans have not extracted any resources, where there is almost no pollution. And it's, you know, you dive - jump in the water and immediately you are surrounded by sharks. And outside there are seabirds nesting by the hundreds of thousands on the islands. And sea turtles, whales, dolphins -- it's extraordinary.
HOBSON: And how have they been able to survive in that way without the kind of protection that the president wants to give them?
SALA: These places have been able to stay pristine because they are so remote. But fishing fleets are encroaching upon these last wild places. And every year thousands of seabirds, turtles and marine mammals die because they get entangled in nets or they are caught by hooks that are set in the water to catch tuna.
HOBSON: So when the president says that this big swath of the Pacific would be fully protected - what exactly does that mean?
SALA: The islands are currently protected up to 50 miles, but there are a 150 miles more that belong to U.S. waters that are still key to protect this entire ecosystem. So think about birds that fly tens to hundreds of miles to get fish to feed their chicks on the islands, and then some of these chicks are going to feed the sharks. Also, so it's a big, big ecosystem that expands over hundreds of miles.
HOBSON: Now the president is going to do this through executive order and is already getting pushback from some Republicans in Congress who don't like that idea. And they're talking about negative economic impacts of restricting fishing and energy exploration. What about that?
SALA: President Obama is going to follow on the steps of other presidents like Teddy Roosevelt or George Bush who actually created four national monuments including the current Pacific Remote Islands National Monuments. So it is the president's prerogative to use Antiquities Act to protect these unique places that belong to the nation. And in terms of economic activities, that tuna fisheries of the U.S. Pacific fleet happen elsewhere. Only a small part - less than 5 percent of the tuna caught by the Hawaiian fleet is caught there. And the tuna migrates. So if this area's protected, the tuna will be able to be caught elsewhere.
HOBSON: And this comes just a day after the nation of Kiribas did something similar off of its coast. Is the world starting to recognize that there's a real problem with overfishing or why is this happening all at once?
SALA: There is, indeed, a trend for protection of critical areas in the ocean. And yes, I think there is a realization among country leaders that we are degrading the ocean natural capital beyond a threshold. And we need to make sure that some areas are protected. And the president of Kiribas, yesterday, announced the full protection of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area which is the size of California. And today the Cook Islands are going to announce, also, the creation of a new fishing area 50 miles around their islands. So there is momentum. And world leaders are working together to make sure that we protect this natural capital that gives us goods and services that are essential to our well-being.
HOBSON: Enric Sala is an oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence joining us from Washington today where the president made this announcement via video link about protecting large swaths of the Pacific Ocean from fishing and energy exploration. Enric Sala, thanks for joining us.
SALA: Thank you, Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.