Speaking to representatives from dozens of countries gathered in Washington for the third annual Our Ocean conference, President Obama said Thursday that it was urgent that leaders take swift, bold action to safeguard oceans around the globe.
“We cannot truly protect our planet without protecting our ocean,” the president said, adding that the U.S. and others had begun to address threats such as climate change and overfishing. “But it’s no secret that we’re going to have to do a lot more, and we’re going to have to do it fast.”
Obama listed several of the steps he had taken while in office to promote conservation, including his move Thursday to create the first-ever marine national monument in the U.S. Atlantic. He described the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which lies 130 miles off the southeast coast of Cape Cod, as one that balances environmental safeguards with those for local fishing interests.
“We’re protecting fragile ecosystems off the coast of New England, including pristine underseas canyons and seamounts. We’re helping make the oceans more resilient to climate change,” he said. “And this will help fishermen better understand the changes that are taking place that will affect their livelihood, and we’re doing it in a way that respects the fishing industry’s unique role in New England’s economy and history.”
But he also framed his commitment to the sea in highly personal terms, speaking about both his childhood growing up in Hawaii as well as his recent visit to Midway Atoll. Late last month, he expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which includes Midway, making it the largest protected area on the planet.
“I grew up in Hawaii. The ocean’s really nice there,” he said. “And the notion that the ocean I grew up with is not something that I can pass on to my kids and my grandkids is unacceptable. It’s unimaginable.”
Recalling his Sept. 1 visit to Midway, Obama described how he observed Hawaiian green sea turtles sunning themselves on the beach (“It turns out they like sun when we’re not overcrowding the beaches”) and the fact that while snorkeling, he gazed not only at purple and orange coral but a nearby monk seal that dived into the water.
“And that, too, was a great cause for optimism because it reminded us that nature is actually resilient if we take care to just stop actively destroying it — that it will come back,” he said. “And certainly the oceans can come back if we take the steps that are necessary. I saw it. It was right there — evidence of the incredible power of nature to rebuild itself if we’re not consistently trying to tear it down.”
Not all Americans share Obama’s enthusiasm for restricting commercial activities in the sea. Eric Reid, general manager at a fish-processing plant in Point Judith, R.I., said in an email that the president’s use of executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act will reverberate in New England long after he’s left office.
“Today President Obama has declared the first marine monument in the Atlantic ocean,” Reid said. “He will only have to live with the intended and unintended consequences of his actions for 127 days. The industry will suffer these same disastrous consequences forever.”
A slew of countries and nonprofit groups also announced new commitments Thursday as part of the conference, including a $48 million pledge by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Waitt Foundation, the Blue Moon Fund and the Global Environment Facility to support the expansion and establishment of new marine protected areas worldwide.
Separately, a coalition launched a new satellite-based surveillance system Thursday called Global Fishing Watch, which is powered by Google and will scour the globe at all hours to spot those illegally plundering the oceans. The organizations that partnered to develop it, which include the marine-advocacy group Oceana and West Virginia-based nonprofit SkyTruth, say the free platform will help governments, journalists and everyday citizens monitor roughly 35,000 commercial fishing vessels nearly in real time.
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