Obama wants to expand Pacific Ocean marine preserve

Butterfly fish swimming around Johnston Atoll coral. The atoll is part of the marine preserve. (Photo courtesy James Maragos/U.S Fish & Wildlife Preserve)
Butterfly fish swimming around Johnston Atoll coral. The atoll is part of the marine preserve. (Photo courtesy James Maragos/U.S Fish & Wildlife Preserve)

President Obama announced a plan Tuesday to create the world’s largest marine preserve in the Pacific Ocean.

The president unveiled the plan in a video message at the State Department’s “Our Ocean” conference.

The proposal will expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the Central Pacific.

The area contains some of the world’s most pristine tropical marine environments.

Former President George W. Bush created the 87,000 square mile preserve in 2009, setting aside waters that encircle an array of remote islands between Hawaii and American Samoa.

Now President Obama is expanding it to more than 780,000 square miles - almost nine times what Bush set aside – and far more if he included the waters around other U.S. islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Obama hasn’t settled on the final boundaries for the expanded monument, and will solicit input from fishermen, scientists and conservation experts.

His senior counselor, John Podesta, said that process would start immediately and wrap up “in the very near future.”

The president compared the action to the protections currently afforded to U.S mountains, rivers and forests.

In practical terms, the expanded sanctuary will likely have a modest impact, as very little commercial fishing is conducted around the islands. And Bob Fryklund, chief upstream strategist for analytics agency IHS Energy, said no one is currently exploring for oil or gas in the area.

But conservation groups said it’s critical to take proactive steps to safeguard underwater ecosystems even if direct human damage isn’t imminent.

“These are fairly long distances from any ports, and they’re very expensive to get to,” said Lance Morgan of the Marine Conservation Institute. “Still, we don’t know what all the future uses are going to be.”

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CNN and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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