Obama to propose expanding Pacific Ocean marine sanctuary

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday will announce his intent to make a broad swath of the central Pacific Ocean off limits to fishing, energy exploration and other activities, according to senior White House officials.

The proposal, slated to go into effect later this year after a comment period, could create the world’s largest marine sanctuary and double the area of ocean globally that is fully protected.

The announcement — details of which were provided to The Washington Post — is part of a broader push on maritime issues by an administration that has generally favored other environmental priorities. The oceans effort, led by Secretary of State John Kerry and White House counselor John Podesta, is likely to spark a new political battle with Republicans over the scope of Obama’s executive powers.

The president will also direct federal agencies to develop a comprehensive program aimed at combating seafood fraud and the global black-market fish trade. In addition, the administration finalized a rule last week allowing the public to nominate new marine sanctuaries off U.S. coasts and in the Great Lakes.

Obama has used his executive authority 11 times to safeguard areas on land, but scientists and activists have been pressing him to do the same for untouched underwater regions. Former president George W. Bush holds the record for creating U.S. marine monuments, declaring four during his second term, including the one that Obama plans to expand.

Under the proposal, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument would be expanded from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles — all of it adjacent to seven islands and atolls controlled by the United States. The designation would include waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore from the territories.

“It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to the pristine ocean,” said Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence who has researched the area’s reefs and atolls since 2005.

Obama has faced criticism from a variety of groups — including cattle ranchers, law enforcement officers and ATV enthusiasts — over his expansion of protections for federal lands. The ocean area under consideration, by contrast, encompasses uninhabited islands in a remote region with sparse economic activity.

Even so, the designation is expected to face objections from the U.S. tuna fleet that operates in the region. Fish caught in the area account for up to 3 percent of the annual U.S. tuna catch in the western and central Pacific, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. When Bush created the monument in 2009, he exempted sport fishing to address industry opposition.

Podesta said a public comment period over the summer will allow the Commerce and Interior departments to “fully understand the commercial activity out there” and modify the plan if necessary.

On Capitol Hill, some Republicans have sought to limit the administration’s ability to influence offshore activities, viewing it as another attempt by the president to test the limits of White House power.

“It’s another example of this imperial presidency,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in an interview, noting that Obama established a National Ocean Policy during his first term to coordinate competing interests at sea. “If there are marine sanctuaries that should be put in place, that should go through Congress.”

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