In an effort to protect diverse habitats of coral reefs, whales, dolphins, sharks, sea turtles and numerous fish species from commercial fishing and other activities, President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that he intends to use his executive authority to create the world's largest marine sanctuary in the south-central Pacific Ocean.
The proposed marine sanctuary would be expanded from about 225,000 square-kilometres to more than 2 million square kilometres in a US-controlled Pacific Ocean area between Hawaii and American Samoa.
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The plan was welcomed by Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio who also made some blunt comments about the state of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
‘‘Since my very first dive in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia 20 years ago to the dive I got to do in the very same location just two years ago, I’ve witnessed environmental devastation firsthand,’’ DiCaprio said at the Our Ocean Conference in Washington DC.
‘‘What once had looked like an endless underwater utopia is now riddled with bleached coral reefs and massive dead zones,’’ he said.
DiCaprio's comments come as the reef's World Heritage status is being examined by the UNESCO group at Doha, Qatar.
Queensland’s environment minister Andrew Powell says the World Heritage Committee is being misinformed about the health of the Great Barrier Reef, and he doesn’t expect them to list the reef as in danger.
UNESCO is broadly expected to give Australia another year to continue its work ticking off previous recommendations on improving the health of the reef.
Getting around Congress
Mr Obama's Pacific plan is one of the few ways in which the President can create new environmental protections without action from Congress. He has also used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate 11 new national monuments on land, ensuring that millions of acres of wilderness will remain untouched.
"Growing up in Hawaii, I learned early to appreciate the beauty and power of the ocean," Mr Obama said at a White House event Tuesday. "And like Presidents Clinton and Bush before me, I'm going to use my authority as president to protect some of our most precious marine landscapes, just like we do for mountains and rivers and forests."
Presidents of both parties have used executive authority to protect public lands and waters. President George W. Bush created what was at the time the world's largest marine sanctuary, protecting 140,000 square-miles of water off the Hawaiian islands from commercial activity.
Republican lawmakers have criticised Mr Obama for using his executive authority to create monuments on land, thus blocking commercial activity such as oil and gas drilling. Experts said that commercial tuna fishing will likely be the only industry affected by the new sanctuary.
Republican House member Doc Hastings, who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement, "Oceans, like our federal lands, are intended to be multiple-use and open for a wide range of economic activities that includes fishing, recreation, conservation and energy production. It appears this administration will use whatever authorities - real or made-up - to close our ocean and coastal areas with blatant disregard for possible economic consequences."
White House officials said they have not yet determined the borders of the new sanctuary, nor the specific statute under which it will be created. The officials said the White House will spend the next few months seeking input on the plan from outside groups, including environmentalists, the fishing industry and elected officials, before the plan is final.
Mr Obama is also directing federal agencies to develop a comprehensive program aimed at deterring illegal fishing, addressing seafood fraud, and preventing illegally caught fish from entering the marketplace. Black market fishing constitutes up to 20 per cent of the wild marine fish caught each year around the world.
Oceans and climate
The moves are part of a slate of actions that the White House and State Department are rolling out this week aimed at protecting the oceans. Secretary of State John Kerry, who hopes to make environmental protection a hallmark of his tenure, is spearheading the oceans initiative.
This week, he is hosting an oceans conference at the State Department, focused on the threats to oceans posed by overfishing, pollution and climate change.
In his own keynote this morning, Mr Kerry called for the creation of a global ocean strategy.
"Most people think the ocean is larger than life, an endless resource impossible to destroy. But people underestimate the enormous damage that we as humans are inflicting on the ocean every day," he said. "We run the risk of fundamentally breaking entire ecosystems."
In addition to praising the creation of the marine sanctuary, environmental groups also lauded the administration's initiatives on illegal fishing.
A 2013 study conducted by the environmental group Oceana found that 33 per cent of fish sold in metropolitan in the US areas are mislabelled, with lower-cost, lower-quality fish often swapped out for higher-quality fish. For example, the study found that fish containing high levels of the toxin mercury, such as tilefish, are often mislabelled and sold as red snapper and halibut.
"From the amount of mislabelled seafood and illegal seafood products entering the US markets, it's clear we need a comprehensive solution to ensure that seafood sold in the US is safe, legally caught and honestly labelled," said Beth Lowell, a campaign director at Oceana.
The New York Times, AAP