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For Marine Reserves, Size Matters

President Obama recently pledged to expand the current boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. At approximately 215,000 square kilometers, it is already one of the largest nature preserves on the planet. Why does it need to be bigger? Of course, as with all things, size matters.

When it comes to getting the greatest benefit out of no-take marine reserves, according to leading scientists, the bigger, the better.  Large ocean reserves allow for an entire ecosystem to be protected—which is particularly important for species in the Pacific with long migration routes and widely dispersed feeding patterns like the endangered blue whale and the black-footed albatross.

When large enough, marine reserves have a profound impact by creating a refuge for all the marine life within their boundaries. This monument, if expanded, would protect the entire ecosystem it encompasses, from near shore coral reefs to those in the deep sea, as well as hundreds of undersea mountains that are biological hotspots and contain many species yet to be discovered.

The President has not decided how much to expand the current monument. He could increase it by 1.8 million square kilometers to be more than 2 million square kilometers in total. The new total monument would shatter all size records for conservation, including the one set by President George W. Bush in 2009 when he created this monument and two others totaling more than 500,000 square kilometers combined. That record was broken in 2010, when the United Kingdom declared Chagos Island and the entire ocean territory surrounding it a no-take reserve, covering more than 640,000 square kilometers.

This map shows the currently protected areas in green boxes, and the maximum area that could be protected by the U.S. in the light blue circles. (Map by Marine Conservation Institute). [An earlier map featured on this blog post had additional lines grouping islands together which caused some confusion about the area able to be protected.]
This map shows the currently protected areas in green boxes, and the maximum area that could be protected by the U.S. in the light blue circles. (Map by Marine Conservation Institute). [An earlier map featured on this blog post had additional lines grouping islands together which caused some confusion about the area able to be protected.]
The current Pacific Remote Islands monument is actually smaller than other no take marine reserves recently announced. At the Our Oceans Conference sponsored by the State Department, several small Pacific nations, including the Cook Islands, Palau and Kiribati, all announced major new or expanded no-take reserves within their territorial waters. For some countries, these reserves cover as much as 80% of their ocean waters, which have long been a major source of income.  But overfishing has taken a toll and their ecosystems are suffering.

Currently, only 1 percent of the global oceans are protected, as compared to 12 % of land. With this action, the President could double that.  How big would that be? It would be larger than the states of Texas, California, Montana, and New Mexico combined. It would, in one fell swoop, protect 18% of the ocean territory under U.S. control. Given the threats to oceans—overfishing, marine pollution, species loss,and warming—expanding the monument to its full measure would be a huge benefit for future generations in the U.S. and throughout the Pacific.

The United States has the most ocean territory of any country in the world.  If we are to lead, then the President must go the full 200-mile distance.  And if he does, he will set a record for conservation that no other single country could break.

[Updated 8/8/2014]