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President Obama Proposes Creating World's Largest Marine Preserve

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Former First Lady Laura Bush visits the avian residents of the Midway Atoll, one of the areas protected by the Federal Government in the Pacific Ocean. (Getty Images/via The White House)
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President Obama raised the bar for in marine conservation yesterday, announcing he was planning to create the largest marine reserve in the world. The region in the South Pacific, about a thousand miles southwest of Hawaii, covers seven remote and uninhabited islands and atolls and is home to countless species of sharks, whales, dolphins, rare turtles, plant and animal species found literally nowhere else on the planet, and pristine coral reefs. The plan increases of the area protected by the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which were created by President Bush in 2009 and one of the handful of good things he ever actually did.

That order signed in 2009, which also created the Marianas Trench and Rose Atoll NMMs, when combined with the Papahānaumokuākea (formerly Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) NMM that Bush created back in 2006 put the total protected area throughout the Pacific at over 325,000 square miles. Under Obama's proposal he would expand the boundaries from the current 50 nautical miles offshore to or 200 nautical miles, thus ballooning the protected area to over 780,000 square miles.

The power to set aside these large swaths of land with an executive order without Congressional action comes from the American Antiquities Act of 1906, and has been used by 14 presidents (.pdf) to federally protect lands for their historical and natural value.

"Growing up in Hawaii, I learned early to appreciate the beauty and power of the ocean. And like Presidents Clinton and Bush before me, I'm going to use my authority as president to protect some of our most precious marine landscapes, just like we do for mountains and rivers and forests," Obama said yesterday according to the New York Times.

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Republican lawmakers have naturally come to criticize the proposal, citing it as another example of Obama overstepping his powers. "It's another example of this imperial presidency," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings who decided to wield the power of hyperbole like the rest of his GOP colleagues. The fishing industry has also come out against the plan, even though only 3 percent of the U.S. tuna catch occurs in the areas designated for protection. Though the new designations would put a complete end to commercial economic activity in the waters, they are already sparsely exploited.

These areas in the Pacific are home to an extremely diverse range of flora and fauna, with many of the islands home to unique species found nowhere else in the world. Global warming remains a real threat to these locations, with the potential of rising sea levels submerging these tiny islands and ocean acidification jeopardizing the health of marine life.

The United States controls the largest chunk of the world's oceans compared to other nations, at 13 percent. It is also the second-largest consumer of seafood behind China. Obama's proposal would be a step towards sustainable stewardship of a resource in decline.