President Obama to Expand Protection of Pacific Waters

A small giant clam found near Baker Island in the Pacific. (Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In an effort to conserve pristine ocean habitats and the sharks, whales, corals and fish that live in them, President Barack Obama announced today (June 17) that he would use his executive authority to expand a protected area in the Pacific Ocean to prevent human activities that could harm the ecosystem.

Obama also said he would establish a task force to combat illegal fishing in remarks directed at participants of the Our Ocean conference, hosted by the State Department.

"Growing up in Hawaii, I learned early to appreciate the beauty and power of the ocean," Obama said in a recorded video message. "Of course, we all know how fragile our blue planet can be." [Marine Marvels: Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures]

Obama has his sights set on the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which currently offers a ring of protection around seven islands and atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, far from the continental United States.

Established by President George W. Bush, just before he left office in 2009, the monument covers 82,129 square miles (212,714 square kilometers). But a geographic analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts determined that Obama could expand the sanctuary to 780,000 square miles (2 million square km), making it the largest ocean preserve in the world, the Associated Press reported.

The new environmental move comes on the heels of the Obama administration's recent proposal to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels over the next 25 years. During his video message, Obama listed rising carbon dioxide levels as well as pollution and overfishing among the obstacles facing ocean conservation today.

"If we ignore these problems, if we drain our oceans of their resources, we won't just be squandering one of humanity's greatest treasures," Obama said. "We'll be cutting off one of the world's major sources of food and economic growth, including for the United States. We cannot afford to let that happen."

Obama has also directed federal authorities to develop a program to address illegal fishing and prevent illegally-caught fish from entering the marketplace, a move applauded by conservationists.

"President Obama's announcement is a historic step forward in the fight against seafood fraud and illegal fishing worldwide," Beth Lowell, campaign director of the group Oceana, said in a statement. "This initiative is a practical solution to an ugly problem and will forever change the way we think about our seafood."  

In a recent study in the journal Marine Policy, researchers estimated that 20 to 32 percent by weight of wild-caught seafood in the United States is illegally caught. Another study published last year by Oceana found that up to 30 percent of fish sold in the United States could be mislabeled.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.