Senior Editor
Obama, protecting. Photos: Washington Post

Obama, protecting. Photos: Washington Post

The Inertia

A few weeks ago, President Obama did something great. He created the biggest protected area on Earth–more than half a million square miles.

In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands lies the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Established by George W. Bush ten years ago, it is two things: incredibly hard to pronounce and long-term protection for a vast array of marine life and areas of cultural significance. Dubya’s Papahānaumokuākea was about 140,000 square miles, which was still pretty damn good, considering that’s larger than every national park in the US combined. Obama, though, really stepped it up. Papahānaumokuākea 2.0 is now 582,578 square miles of land and sea. That’s twice the size of Texas, and Texas isn’t small.

“It is in the public interest to preserve the marine environment,” said the President, who isn’t just paying lip service to the idea. During his term as President, he’s created nearly 30 national monuments, spanning the entire country.

According to Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, Obama “would be happy to sign into law a piece of legislation that would have protected these waters, but we haven’t seen that kind of legislative activity in this Congress, and it means the president has had to make more effective use of his executive authority.”


It’s for good reason, too: the ocean keeps us alive. We wouldn’t exist without it, so its protection should be a top priority. Sustainable fishing, stricter dumping rules, etc, should be the norm, not the exception. We shouldn’t be shitting where we eat, and in a literal sense, we’re doing that.  “The oceans are the untold story when it comes to climate change, and we have to feel a sense of urgency when it comes to protecting the ocean that sustains us,”  Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told the Washington Post.

The protected area increased 4 times in size.

The protected area increased 4 times in size.

So what, exactly, does the monument protect from? In a nutshell, no one can take anything from the area, at least on a commercial venture. That means no commercial fishing and no deep-sea mining, including mineral extraction. Recreational fishing is still permitted, but a permit is required, just like anywhere else.

Of course, like any story, there are two sides. People who make their living on fishing boats aren’t happy about the newly-expanded protection area. Longline fishermen lobbied hard against it. “We move all over the ocean, in the way the fish move,” Jim Cook, co-owner of POP Fishing and Marine, told The Washington Post. According to Cook, more than half of federal waters are now closed to commercial fishing.

Federal officials, though, estimate that only about 5 percent of commercial ventures will be affected, since most of them catch upwards of half their fish in international waters.

But it truly is an area that deserves protection. Within the new boundaries of the Papahānaumokuākea National Monument lies an extraordinary amount of things worth protecting. The world’s oldest living animal, for example–a black coral somewhere around 4,500-years-old. According to a researcher at the NOAA, every one of 50 biological samples taken on expeditions to the area last year contained new species or species that weren’t known to live in the area.  “We’re seeing a lot of life, a lot of new life and a lot of very old life,” he said. “Things have not been disturbed for a very long time.” Which is just the way it should be.


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