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U.S. expands pristine national monument in the middle of the Pacific

September 25, 2014 at 6:05 PM EDT
A region of the Pacific Ocean that is home to thriving colonies of rare and endangered species will be protected as the world’s largest marine preserve, under an executive order by President Obama. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Institute about the importance of keeping the area undisturbed, as well as its historical precedent.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A region of the Pacific Ocean three times the size of California will now be off-limits to commercial activity. President Obama signed an order today expanding protection for what scientists say is one of the most pristine remaining ocean ecosystems.

Hari Sreenivasan has more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Pacific Remote Islands Marine Preserve is farther from human settlement than any other U.S. territory. The president’s expansion of the reserve today will close 490,000 square miles of largely undisturbed ocean to commercial fishing and underwater mining.

The area is home to thriving colonies of rare and endangered ocean life, including fish, sea turtles, and coral reefs.

Joining me now to talk about the significance of today’s announcement is Elliott Norse. He is founder and chief scientist of the Marine Conservation Institute.

Thanks for joining us.

So, first off, what is in these waters?

ELLIOTT NORSE, Marine Conservation Institute: These waters are filled with marine life.

They have extraordinary coral reefs, extraordinary because they are among the most pristine coral reefs on earth. They still have their big sharks. Waters further from shore have large predators, including tunas of several species. They abound with seabirds, sea turtles. There’s a species of whale there that was discovered within the waters of that monument just a relatively few years ago. It’s full of life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The area was deemed a monument by President George W. Bush. Why the need to expand it?

ELLIOTT NORSE: Well, President Bush did something really visionary in 2009 by designating it as Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, but I don’t think all of the scientific information was taken into account at that point.

We know now that the seabirds that feed their chicks in their nests on the islands forage out to a distance in some cases of several hundred miles, and they need to find concentrations of food so they can go back and feed their babies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So didn’t President Obama want more of the area initially in their first proposals to be preserved? There were, I think, a couple areas that could have been expanded further today, but were not.

ELLIOTT NORSE: Well, I don’t know what President Obama wanted. He certainly said that he was interested in expanding the boundaries of the whole Marine National Monument, but on the other hand, he got a lot of pushback from anti-environmental forces that said that they wanted these — they didn’t want protection of this area. They wanted it open to commercial fishing for tunas.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So about the concerns that the commercial fishermen or fisherwomen, people who fish had, they said that there’s already the Endangered Species Act. There’s the Marine Mammals Act. What does this kind of a preservation actually do to help these fish?

ELLIOTT NORSE: What it means is that these fish won’t be killed within the boundaries of Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. And that’s not only important for the fishes, like tunas, but it’s also important for the seabirds, because these birds depend on things like tunas to drive the little fish they eat up to the surface, where the seabirds can get them, catch them and bring them home to their babies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So does this also — this also prohibits drilling and commercial mining. Are those sorts of activities happening in this area now?

ELLIOTT NORSE: No, they’re not.

And I don’t know if oil or gas drilling will ever be an issue in these places, but deep-sea mining is a real threat to marine life and might have happened there, but for President Bush’s and now, even more, President Obama’s visionary actions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You mentioned commercial fishing. I just wanted to come back to that for a second, because people who catch fish go where the fish are. How do you prevent them from going into these waters? How do you enforce this new boundary? We asked even the president of Kiribati recently, who had done something similar near the Phoenix Islands.

So, how do you do the enforcement here even after these new boundaries are set?

ELLIOTT NORSE: Well, that’s an important question.

And I think what we need to know is that the United States has means at its disposal to make sure that fishing is not going to be happening. And if the United States decides to prevent fishing, we will watch, as a people, and make sure that there’s no commercial fishing going on there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what sort of a signal does this send to the rest of the world?

ELLIOTT NORSE: I love the signal it sends, because the United States now is — has protected more of its waters than just about any other nation.

And there are other great nations, Canada, France, Russia, China, that have not done nearly as much. This sends a signal to nations large and small that our oceans are important, that we need to protect marine life, and we need to act now for future generations, as well as our own.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It seems like there’s also a political element to this, the president accomplishing this through an executive order. On the one hand, it seems it’s very difficult to get anything through Washington these days. And this is sort of an act of bipartisanship, in that he’s expanding President Bush’s initiative.

ELLIOTT NORSE: This is true.

Congress obviously is broken in many ways. It hasn’t been working. And so presidents since Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 have had the opportunity to protect places that Congress didn’t lead on. I am proud to have helped President George W. Bush do this in 2009, along with the organization that I then headed and now I’m part of, and I am proud that President Obama has dramatically expanded protections in this area.

If Congress doesn’t do its job, thank goodness our presidents can.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Elliott Norse from the Marine Conservation Institute, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT NORSE: Pleasure to talk with you.

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