Jarvis Island coral reef

Coral at Jarvis Island in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. (Photo: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Pacific Ocean is undergoing a conservation renaissance, buoyed by a series of huge marine sanctuaries created in recent years. And on Tuesday, President Obama proposed the largest marine sanctuary on Earth, a 500 million-acre swath of pristine ecosystems southwest of Hawaii.

Unveiled at the U.S. State Department's Our Ocean conference, the proposal would expand the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from 82,000 square miles to nearly 782,000, according to early details reported by the Washington Post. That 850 percent growth spurt would more than double the total amount of Earth's oceans protected by marine sanctuaries.

"We've already shown that when we work together, we can protect our oceans for future generations," Obama said Tuesday in a statement about the proposal. "So let's redouble our efforts. 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."

Established by President George W. Bush in 2008, PRIMNM currently stretches 50 miles from the coasts of seven small, uninhabited U.S. islands in the South Pacific. Obama's plan would push those borders 150 miles farther out, covering the full 200-mile extent of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. It would likely ban activities such as fishing, mining and oil drilling, although the Obama administration will hold a public comment period this summer to assess the economic impact and make adjustments.

"These tiny, remote Pacific islands and atolls were some of the last places on the planet to feel the pressure and weight of human feet," says Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress. "Today's [proposal] by President Obama will minimize the future impact of the footprint of human activity on some of the world's most pristine and resilient ocean ecosystems."


The proposed sanctuary may seem mostly empty, but in addition to its seven small islands, it also teems with coral reefs and other busy habitats below the surface. PRIMNM already contains at least 40 seamounts, which are known for fostering biodiversity, and its proposed expansion could add another 200 of these underwater mountains to the fold. Five protected species of sea turtles, 22 types of protected marine mammals and countless throngs of seabirds also frequent the area.

Obama's proposal is the latest move in what increasingly seems like a global race to preserve South Pacific ecosystems. A mix of small island nations and global superpowers have been jockeying to out-conserve each other with larger sanctuaries, creating a competitive environment that encourages many conservationists despite the potential for disorganization and confusion.

Bush still holds the record for creating U.S. marine monuments, having declared four that span 330,000 square miles, although Obama may be poised to take that title. And that's just part of a broader spike in epic ocean protection. Conservation International, for example, has helped 23 Pacific nations form the Pacific Oceanscape, a network of marine parks that cover an area four times larger than the entire U.S. The U.K. recently set up the planet's largest marine preserve around the Chagos Islands, and it's now considering a similar sanctuary for the Pitcairn Islands. In May, New Caledonia set aside the largest nature preserve anywhere on Earth, on land or water.

Many other island nations have tightened fishing rules in their territorial waters, such as Kiribati, whose president also made a big announcement at the Our Ocean summit Monday. Working with Conservation International and the New England Aquarium, President Anote Tong said he'll end commercial fishing within the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a California-sized collection of marine ecosystems that was established in 2008. The president of Palau has also recently pledged to limit commercial fishing in that country's waters, hinting at a trend among Pacific islands to shift from resource-intensive economies to more sustainable eco-tourism.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Obama proposes Earth's largest marine sanctuary
Covering some 500 million acres of ocean, the expanded marine sanctuary would be four times larger than California.