Barack Obama Creates World’s Largest Marine Reserve

Pink coral at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Jim Maragos/USFWS

Today (September 25), Barack Obama created the largest marine reserve on the planet, west of Hawaii. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument has been expanded to six times its original size, now spanning almost 490,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Pacific Ocean. 

For some perspective on the new size of the reserve, it’s about the same area as Texas, California, and Georgia, all put together. By international law, 200 miles off the coast is the largest amount of ocean water the U.S. is able to protect around seven islands, including Howland Island, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, and Palmyra Atoll.

This expansion is meant to protect some of the most vulnerable species on the planet including coral reefs, crustaceans, sharks, sea turtles, and a variety of seabirds with fantastic names like “blue noddies,” “masked boobies,” and “sooty terns.” These species are most threatened by ocean acidification, migrating species, and other negative effects of climate change. This will also preserve seamounts, which are essentially underwater mountains teeming with life.


The Pacific Remote Islands are outlined in blue. These protected areas will be expanding. Image credit: NOAA

Commercial fishing, oil drilling, and waste dumping are forbidden within this protected area. While this doesn’t interfere with any current or planned drilling efforts, it could impact tuna fishing. According to the Washington Post, as much as 4% of the tuna for the U.S. is sourced from this area.

The reserve was created in 2009 by George W. Bush, acting under the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act. This gives the president the right to protect the environment without approval from congress, provided there is an ecological or scientific need. At its inception, the reserve protected about 87,000 square miles. Obama used the same authority to expand it, as congress had been unable to agree on terms of environmental protection in the area.

Despite this enormous addition of protected water, only about 1% of U.S.-controlled water is under protection. As a comparison, 10% of the land area is protected by the government.

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