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Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

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To mark the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Barack Obama vastly expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was originally created by George W. Bush to claim he had done something for conservation. This is now the largest piece of conserved territory on the planet, now over 582,000 square miles of ocean.

Papahānaumokuākea is a sanctuary for endangered species, including blue whales, short-tailed albatrosses, sea turtles, and the last Hawaiian monk seals. It contains some of the world’s northernmost and healthiest coral reefs, considered among the most likely to survive in an ocean warmed by climate change. The seamounts and sunken islands of its deeper waters are inhabited by more than 7,000 species, including the oldest animals on Earth—black corals that have lived for more than 4,000 years.

In all, a quarter of the creatures living in the monument are found nowhere else. Many more have not yet been identified—such as a ghostly little white octopus, recently discovered, that scientists have dubbed Casper.

It’s certainly true that it’s politically easier to create an oceanic monument (although awfully hard to police I’d guess so I’m curious how successful keeping big commercial fishing boats out of there will be) than a land monument. And thus it’s basically impossible to visit, although a visit to Midway could be pretty cool for the war stuff. But that’s OK. As the oceans change rapidly between climate change and overfishing, keeping some parts of it as pristine as possible is certainly a good thing. Of course, even at 582,000 square miles, many fish will swim right out of them.

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, said Obama’s announcement buoys hope that the United States can lead the way to a global network of marine-protected areas large enough to save and restore the oceans. These “blue parks,” as Earle calls them, “are not a luxury – a place to go and have a good time,” she said. “Resilience to climate change is dependent upon having significant areas of natural protection—for biodiversity and for all the things that hold the planet steady. This is vitally important to protect our life-support system.”

I guess I’m a bit skeptical about this globally because of a) resources to police fishing over vast areas and b) the impact of climate change and ocean acidification to wipe out most species. But why not try? It’s certainly a good idea if nothing else.

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