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Large Scale Marine Protection Introduced by Obama Under the Antiquities Act. What will President Trump do?

President Obama used his executive powers to protect 550 million acres of land and ocean during his tenure. Applying the Antiquities Act, President Obama more than doubled the existing marine protection in National Marine Monuments in his last year in office. Dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, the 1906 Antiquities Act has been used by Democratic and Republican presidents alike to designate national monuments on the land. The law authorizes the President to proclaim “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments.

Originally intended to protect Native American antiquities, the first application of the Antiquities Act was under President Roosevelt to protect the Devils Tower in Wyoming, a granite monolith sacred to Plains Indians. 127 of the existing 129 US monuments are land based, with the Bears Ears National Monument and Gold Butte in Utah being the most recent established under Obama in December 2016. Obama used his authority 29 times under the Antiquities Act, more than any other president, to protect land and marine habitat.

The first application of the Antiquities Act to protect the ocean was used in 2006 by President George W. Bush, who declared the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, known as the Papahānaumokuākea, as the nation’s first Marine National Monument. In an unexpected and precedent setting move, President Bush created the largest marine protected areas in the world at the time, excluding all fisheries except for native artisanal use in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

In 2009 George W. Bush established three additional U.S. marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean for habitat and fisheries protection including: the Pacific Remote Islands of Jarvis island, Baker Island, Howland Island, Wake Atoll, Johnson Atoll, Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef; Rose Atoll near American Samoa; and the Marianas Trench protecting a combined 195, 280 square miles. In August 2016, President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from 82,800 square miles to 490,000 and expanded the Papahānaumokuākea more than four times to a size of 582,578 square miles.

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Nesting Red Footed Booby, Palmyra Atoll, Photo Credit David McGuire

In December 2016, President Obama established the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean. Situated 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, protects 4,913 square miles of deep-water habitat. This designation phases out commercial fishing and prohibits other extractive activities such as mining and drilling. In his final week of office, Obama expanded the California Coastal National Monument protecting more than 20,000 rocks and small islands located off the California coastline. Originally designated by President Clinton in 2000, the site has already been expanded by Obama once, when he added Point Arena-Stornetta in Mendocino County in 2014. The California Monument, was expanded by 6,230 acres and includes protection of six new sites under Obama.

Before Bush and Obama used their presidential powers, our federally protected waters fall under the National Marine Sanctuaries administered by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce. The Sanctuary network now includes a system of 13 national marine sanctuaries and the Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments. First established by congress in 1972, The National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to designate and protect areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational or esthetic qualities as national marine sanctuaries.

New national marine sanctuaries are advanced by NOAA under a lengthy scientific review public process and congressional review. Thunder Bay in Lake Huron was the last national marine sanctuary designated in 2000 under President Clinton. The sanctuary protects a group of nationally significant historic shipwrecks in an area known as Shipwreck Alley. No new marine Sanctuaries have been approved since that time, although expansions have occurred.

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Southeast Farallon Island, Greater Farallons National Marine Sanctuary Photo Credit David McGuire

The Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries off northern California more than doubled in size to 4586 miles during Obama’s second term. Initially proposed in 2004 by Representative Lynn Woolsey (D. CA), Congress shelved the proposal several times due to opposition from interests in oil and gas exploration. The new expansion makes the Sanctuaries off limits to oil drilling, and is intended to help protect the region’s marine and coastal habitats, biological resources and special ecological features. Several reauthorizations and revisions to the National Marine Sanctuaries Act have made by congress since 1972, including adding congressional review and removing presidential approval. In a novel move, NOAA is currently soliciting proposals to the general public for new Sanctuary designations to protect national marine resources.

The term marine protection can be ambiguous. Sanctuaries increase habitat and fisheries protection, ban oil drilling and other extractive activities with varying levels of authority, and regulate discharges. These protections however could be reversed by a congressional act. Sanctuaries are not marine reserves unto themselves and commercial and recreational fisheries are allowed inside National Marine Sanctuaries with some specific exceptions unique to each Sanctuary. In nearly all cases the Sanctuaries are protected from extractive activity; some would require a congressional act to reverse bans on oil drilling. NOAA claims that over 41 percent of U.S. marine waters are protected to some degree. In contrast, the Department of the State Bureau of Oceans and International and Scientific Affairs estimates that MPAs cover about 32 % of U.S. marine waters (2,441980 square miles) in 2016.  However, full protection as no take reserves is about 245,441 sq. miles, or about 3 % of U.S. waters.

Nursing N. Elephant Seal, Greater Farallons National marine Sanctuary Photo Credit David McGuire
Nursing N. Elephant Seal, Greater Farallons National Marine Sanctuary Photo Credit David McGuire

This places the US far ahead of global marine protection. MPAtlas.org compiled by the Marine Conservation Institute (MCI) states that 3% of the total world’s oceans are fully implemented and actively managed marine protected areas. MCI cites that only 1% of the ocean is strongly protected in no-take marine reserves.

The United Nations set a target of protecting 10 percent of the oceans by 2020 at the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2014. The 2016 World Conservation Congress took that goal a step further. Organized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), international leaders recommended a 30% marine protection goal by 2030. The US has demonstrated leadership in protecting our ocean habitat and natural marine resources under both parties. Despite the recent increases in marine protected areas we still have a long way to go to make the goals recommended by scientists.

Since his inauguration, President Trump has made quick use of executive power to undo legislation made by the previous administration. Having survived several legislative and legal challenges in the past, the new president will have a fight to reverse recent increases in marine protection under the Antiquities Act. If any revision or revocation of sanctuary regulations is proposed under President Trump, Congress must consider these in full public light. However, reversing these protections could create a public and legal battle that could delay agency funding and impact management decisions.

With continued threats from overfishing, ocean acidification and increasing sea temperature, the oceans needs strong public support for our national marine monuments and national marine sanctuaries, supporting NOAA and marine wildlife protection.