The Grand Canyon of our oceans

President Obama has just protected the Grand Canyon of our oceans. By expanding and protecting the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument, he has created one of the world’s largest protected marine reserves and conserved a breath-taking, ecological hot spot for sea turtles, sharks and other unique and endangered species.

Theodore Roosevelt protected the Grand Canyon as a National Monument in 1908, using the authority granted to him by Congress under the Antiquities Act. President Obama used that same authority this week to expand and protect the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument. This action builds on President George W. Bush’s 2009 designation of 83,000 square miles to now protect 490,000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean.

The newly expanded National Monument is indeed “remote” – located more than 1,000 miles from Hawaii (as far as Miami from New York) – and teeming with marine life. A 2005 National Geographic expedition documented “deep corals that are thousands of years old, 22 species of marine mammals, five species of endangered sea turtles, and millions of fish and nesting seabirds. The area hosts one of the largest populations of manta rays and sharks… including endangered silky and oceanic whitetip sharks.”

Protected marine areas like this one help to maintain habitat for threatened and endangered species and also healthy, sustainable commercial and recreational fishing industries. Obama has acted in our economic and ecological best interest, and once again demonstrated the United States’ world leadership in safeguarding critical ocean habitat for future generations.

Yet there is more to do. Currently less than 1 percent of our oceans are fully protected.  We derive great economic, environmental and recreational value from our National Parks and wilderness areas.  We will benefit at least as much from protection of special ocean places.   Many marine scientists and experts agree that to ensure the health and productivity of our oceans at least 20 percent needs to be fully protected.

Like our celebrated National Park System of irreplaceable ecological, cultural and historic treasures, we need a representative “system” of marine sanctuaries and monuments to protect the vast treasures of our oceans. Roosevelt’s protection of the Grand Canyon spurred a conservation ethic to protect our purple mountains majesty. Roosevelt established 5 National Parks – doubling the number that existed before he took office – and 18 National Monuments, as well as bird sanctuaries, game refuges and national forests. Today, there are more than 400 park sites in our National Park System, and communities including Chicago are encouraging President Obama to protect more.   By contrast, our National Marine Sanctuaries number only 13, with an additional four designated National Marine Monuments, spread across the world’s largest exclusive economic zone. 

Obama’s preservation of the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument can launch an effort similar to Roosevelt’s to conserve our oceans’ heritage.

“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world,” Roosevelt said. “I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.”

Let’s do the same for our oceans.

Schwaab is chief conservation officer for the National Aquarium -- a leading nonprofit aquatic education and conservation organization whose mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. Schwaab formally served as Fisheries Service director and acting assistant secretary for Conservation and Management for the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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