Last month Barack Obama signed a statement to expand a marine reserve in the south- central Pacific Ocean, aiming at protecting more of the world’s oceans.
This reserve, which includes tropical islands and atolls such as Wake Island, Johnson Atoll, Jarvis Island and others, was previously established in 2006 by George Bush. The aim was to protect the marine environment of the area, which holds some of the most intact coral reefs, seamounts and marine ecosystems of the world. The reserve will now cover 490,000 square miles – six times its previous size – the equivalent of Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma combined.
While this certainly is one of the richest areas, it is also one of the most delicate. Especially when considering the increasing pressures from climate change, resource extraction and ocean acidification that threaten its balance. Thus, the statement signed doesn’t merely deal with protecting a larger portion of the world’s oceans and its life; it concerns the mainland too. The protections included are extensive and call for bans on commercial fishing, deep sea mining, dumping and other similar commercial activities. Recreational fishing, however, will be permitted.
This gesture has been acclaimed worldwide as a great step towards improving the conditions of the world’s oceans, but it didn’t fail to raise concerns among scientists, NGOs, and the general populous.
The islands of the area, between Hawaii and American Samoa, are divided into five regions. Obama is extending the reserve for three of these five. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, this protection could have been expanded to include all five regions, protecting more than 780,000 square miles. However, Obama eventually listened to the complaints from Hawaii-based tuna fleets and left the waters around that area open to fishing.
Secretary of State John Kerry said: “Agreements won’t matter if no one’s enforcing them. And marine protected areas are not going to be effective if no one’s monitoring them.” Signing a statement clearly is not complicated, but working towards preserving an area that’s so vast might be more complex”. He continues: “We have a responsibility to make sure our kids and their families and the future has the same ocean to serve it in the same way as we have – not to be abused, but to preserve and utilise”.
This commitment is certainly positive, but only time will tell if this is more than just a symbolic victory for the environment and, amongst other things, how much “recreational” fishing will remain permitted. Enlarging a protected area is not enough. What matters is the constant care necessary to actually preserve it.