President Obama will propose the creation of two marine sanctuaries today, in a move that will likely avoid controversy while still making a splash at the second international conference on oceans.
Environmentalists had hoped Obama would make a big conservation announcement at this week’s "Our Ocean" conference in Chile. Last year, he used the first Our Ocean conference — which took place in Washington, D.C. — to announce that that he would add more than 400,000 square nautical miles to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Today’s announcement is comparatively minor. It signals that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will begin the process of creating two marine sanctuaries that together total 900 square miles. Obama will also announce new steps to combat illegal fishing.
NOAA picked the proposed sanctuaries out of seven submitted since the agency reopened the public nomination process last year. The two announced today, in Wisconsin and Maryland, are the only ones that have made it under NOAA’s review process so far; the agency has a lengthy set of requirements, such as broad local support and ecological importance.
By leaving the protections up to NOAA, Obama avoids using the Antiquities Act. The century-old law allows the president to unilaterally — and quickly — create national monuments, drawing criticism from congressional Republicans who say it is an abuse of executive power.
A coalition of environmental groups recently proposed the creation of a marine monument in New England, with the hope that the White House would see it fit for a conference announcement (Greenwire, Sept. 30).
The administration has so far been silent on the New England proposal. But in his remarks today, Obama will tell conference attendees that he will "look for opportunities to protect even more of our waters in the months ahead," according to a press release from the White House.
The proposed marine sanctuaries announced today will undergo a public process, with NOAA taking comments until Jan. 15, 2016. Both were nominated by their state’s governors and appear uncontroversial.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) nominated an 875-mile area in Lake Michigan for protection, with the endorsement from a "diverse coalition of organizations and individuals," according to the White House. The area contains 39 known shipwrecks, 15 of which are intact, and follows the shoreline from Port Washington to Two Rivers.
The other sanctuary, nominated by Maryland’s then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), would be in Mallows Bay on the Potomac River. The bay’s 14 square miles contain almost 200 known shipwrecks, including 19th-century schooners, a car ferry and the largest collection of World War I wooden steamships created for the country’s unused "emergency fleet." Marine ecosystems have formed around the wrecks, and the bay is home to threatened and endangered species.
Beyond marine protections, Obama will also detail "new tools" from various agencies to combat illegal fishing. Such efforts are part of the administration’s strategy for combating illegal fishing and seafood fraud.
In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry will launch a new initiative today called "Sea Scout," aimed at uniting governments and their resources to identify and prosecute organizations that engage in illegal fishing. The program will identify illegal fishing "hot spots" so global assets can be efficiently deployed.
NOAA, meanwhile, will develop an application to better detect oceangoing vessels using a space-based sensor called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). The system can detect lights from boats, potentially identifying those fishing suspiciously at night. The agency plans to implement the application in Indonesia, the Philippines and three other countries next year.