Obama vows to Expand Pacific Ocean Marine Sanctuary

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President Obama announced Tuesday that he will use his executive power to protect a large swath of the Pacific Ocean and combat black-market fishing.

In a video address, the president told participants of the “Our Ocean” conference at the State Department that he directed the federal government to come up with a strategy to expand protections around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. The sanctuary was created in 2009 and currently encompasses about 86,000 square miles. That number will now most likely substantially grow under the new plan.

“Let’s make sure that years from now we can look our children in the eye and tell them that, yes, we did our part, we took action, and we led the way toward a safer, more stable world,” Obama said in the pre-taped message.

The president’s move is likely to spark criticism from congressional Republicans, who might see the administration’s announcement as yet another attempt to flex its executive-branch muscles. But Obama’s predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, in 2006 designated an island chain northwest of Hawaii as a national monument – also circumventing a lengthy approval process in Congress.

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The plans come four years after the president single-handedly launched a National Ocean Policy during his first term in office. In the upcoming months, the Obama team will allow and consider comments from industry representatives, scientists and other stakeholders before making a final decision on the scope of the extension.

The president also vowed to combat black-market fishing and seafood fraud. Up to 20 percent of all wild fish caught each year ends up on the black market, costing the industry around $23 billion. Obama’s plan calls for better traceability. It aims to prevent black-market fish from entering the commercial system, and it also allows consumers to better understand where the seafood on their tables comes from.

Attached to the two presidential orders is a host of further activities that will help to counteract the negative impacts of climate change and energy exploitation on marine conservation.

Secretary of State John Kerry and White House counselor John Podesta spearhead the administration’s efforts to prevent oceanic habitats from dying. The two-day “Our Ocean” conference at the State Department brought together officials and scientists from more than 80 countries around the globe.

Kerry used his remarks on Tuesday to call for action on climate change. “The solution is easy, actually,” he said. “It’s energy policy.” He said the energy sector is worth $6 trillion and has four to five billion users. “We have any number of problems that could be cured by energy policy that makes sense.” He also said public-private partnerships are “absolutely critical” to ensure healthy oceans.

“Healthy oceans provide jobs to at least 350 million people,” World Bank COO Sri Mulyani Indrawati said.

Also among those delivering remarks on Tuesday was actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who announced that his environmental foundation will commit another $7 million to fight for marine conservation.

“While we’ve heard a lot about the impacts of climate change on dry land, the oceans will be the sink that absorbs the brunt of our pollution and the danger of higher temperatures,” said DiCaprio, an avid diver who told his audience he dreamed about becoming a marine biologist before wanting to be an actor. “This is especially troubling since oceans are the source of most of our oxygen and life-giving nutrients on this planet. They dictate our climate, our weather patterns and ultimately our own survival. Without healthy oceans we are in serious trouble, and the outlook for their health is not good.”

Added up, commitments made by world leaders during the two conference days equal $1.4 billion and will protect more than 1.1 million square miles of Pacific Ocean waters.