By Laura Barron-Lopez - 06/17/14 11:43 AM EDT
President Obama on Monday announced he plans to close off a large swath of the Pacific Ocean from fishing and energy exploration.
The executive action is the biggest move yet by Obama to protect the oceans, and drew criticism from Republicans who say Obama is overreaching with his moves to create new nature preserves and national monuments.
The president will declare more of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the south-central Pacific Ocean off-limits, according to a White House fact sheet.
Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, expanded the marine sanctuary to 87,000 square miles. The sanctuary is home to tropical coral reefs, and marine ecosystems that are the most vulnerable to climate change and ocean acidification, according to the White House.
Under his plan, Obama also will extend protections some 200 nautical miles offshore of seven U.S.-controlled Pacific islands and atolls that are already classified as national monuments.
The expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands is expected to protect nearly two dozen types of marine mammals, along with threatened species of sea turtles.
The White House said it will seek input from fishers, scientists, conservation experts and lawmakers before making final decisions on the geographic scope of the marine protections.
Obama is also calling on world leaders to join him in protecting the world's ocean ecosystems.
During video remarks at the State Department's Our Ocean conference, Obama said climate change, overfishing and pollution have threatened and degraded the food and economic growth opportunities of the ocean.
"We cannot afford to let that happen," Obama said. "That’s why the United States is leading the fight to protect our oceans. 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.”
The executive order is expected to expand the amount of protected sea by roughly nine times the area designated by Obama's predecessor, according to The Washington Post.
Obama didn't dive into those details during his announcement Tuesday. The administration's accelerated timeline to act on land and water protections has been steered by adviser John Podesta, who has brought a renewed emphasis on executive action to the White House.
Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryAn all-female ticket? Not in 2016 GOP senator calls for China to crack down on illegal opioid Obamas to live in home of former Clinton press secretary: report MORE said during Tuesday's even to expect similar announcements and actions from Obama in the future.
Green groups cheered the new protections and hailed an executive order issued by Obama on Tuesday that established a national panel for combatting illegal fishing.
Under the order, Obama is forming a presidential task force to combat seafood fraud and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Kerry will lead the panel along with Secretary of Commerce Penny PritzkerPenny PritzkerOvernight Cybersecurity: Obama signs trade secrets bill Overnight Finance: Trump now open to raising minimum wage Pritzker urges passage of trade deals to boost US exports MORE.
The World Wildlife Fund called the administration's efforts a "turning point for oceans."
"By expanding marine protected areas and combatting black market fishing, the administration is using the power of the presidency to secure the long-term health of our oceans and the livelihoods they support," said Michele Kuruc of the Wildlife Fund.
But the new efforts, specifically the planned expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands marine sanctuary, drew fire from Republicans such as Rep. Doc HastingsDoc HastingsBoehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform GOP accuses feds of bad science in endangered species studies MORE (Wash.).
"For years the Obama administration has threatened to impose ocean zoning to shut down our oceans, and today the president is making good on that threat," Hastings said in a statement. "This is yet another example of how an imperial president is intent on taking unilateral action, behind closed doors, to impose new regulations and layers of restrictive red-tape."
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio gave remarks at the State Department event.
DiCaprio, who said his first dream was to become a marine biologist, vowed to spend $7 million over the next two years on marine conservation.
"I witnessed environmental devastation firsthand," DiCaprio said, recalling the changes he has seen while diving in the same spot over the years.
The actor's foundation will help support nations that want to expand their marine reserves, among other projects.
— This story was updated at 2:27 p.m.