Obama to make marine preserve largest in the world

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A green sea turtle is seen off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii April 8, 2006. U.S. First Lady Laura Bush on Friday dedicated the Hawaiian name "Papahanaumokuakea" to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Marine Monument, home to more than seven thousand species of animals, including turtles like the one shown, during her visit to Honolulu. Photo taken on April 8, 2006.  REUTERS/Hugh Gentry (UNITED STATES) - RTR1N17V

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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: President Obama has decided to quadruple the size of a federal marine preserve around his home state of Hawaii. By an executive order issued yesterday, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument will become the largest ecological preserve on the planet, encompassing more than 580,000 square miles of land and sea.

For more on the area and species that will be protected, I’m joined by Matt Rand, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy Project.

So, Matt, tell me, why this patch of ocean? What’s so special about it?

MATT RAND, PEW CHARITABLE TRUSTS: Well, this is amazing place in the Pacific Ocean. The northwest Hawaiian Islands where Papahanaumokuakea is a very special place, over 7,000 marine species, talking about the oldest living organism on earth, a deep sea coral that’s 4,500 years old is found here. Ghost Octopus, creatures that are endemic, found only in this stretch of ocean up to 90 percent in certain locations are only found in this stretch of the ocean. And, then, of course, all the magnificent megafauna that everybody sees in the National Geographic films like whales and turtles and sharks and manta rays, and the amazing sea bird life as well.

So, it’s a spectacular piece of ocean and we are so excited that it’s now been protected in perpetuity.

SREENIVASAN: So, how do you protect schools of fish from this area that decide to go outside and back in, right? I mean, this is one of the concerns that the fishing industry has had for some time.

RAND: There are some certain species that definitely go beyond these borders. But while they’re in this huge refuge, and it’s a massive refuge, about three and half times the size the state of California, these fish have an opportunity to reproduce and grow unmolested. So, they have excellent chance of passing on their genes and repopulating.

SREENIVASAN: And put this in perspective of the larger ocean. I mean, while we talk about three times the size of California, put that in perspective for all the ocean that’s sort of not protected this way.

RAND: Yes, scientists are saying we need to protect up to 30 percent of the ocean. And currently right now, in highly protected or fully protected reserves, we have about 3 percent of the ocean. So, we still have very long way to go.

That said, we’ve come a very long way in very short timeframe. In fact, when Papahanaumokuakea was first designated in 2006, the first version of it, by President Bush, that was the largest protected area in the world. We were down around 0.05 percent of the ocean protected just ten years ago now we’re at 3 percent of the world’s ocean protected. This, of course, really sets the standard for the rest of the world, and hopefully a wake up call that we need to start taking bold action like the president just took.

SREENIVASAN: What took it so long? Why the gap in years between when George Bush started this and when President Obama expanded it?

RAND: New scientific information that’s just come out in the last decade, really not that long when you think about it from the scientific perspective. They didn’t know about the world’s oldest living organism or the fact that these endemic sea creatures were found out in these further distances. And they also didn’t have as much scientific information about the importance of the large scale and the interconnectivity between all the different species and their need for such a wide range for protection.

And in the spiritual and cultural connection to the Native Hawaiians has really come to the forefront as well.

SREENIVASAN: Matt, put this kind of space in the context of climate change, what’s the value?

RAND: Yes, scientists are very excited about this area being protected now. Fully intact ecosystems are much more resilient to the impact of climate change. And in this particular location, they’re very excited that it’s one of the, if not the best largest climate refuge, certainly for the ocean but also for the planet. It’s situated in the tropics, but also in the tempered ocean, and actually to the further northern end of the island chain and the now protected marine reserve, the water actually becomes quite cool.

So, the scientists are hopeful that as the waters of our ocean continue to warm and become acidified, that this area will hopefully be climate refuge where species, not only coral but also fish that are threatened from the changing of our ocean temperatures, and acidity. So, it will hopefully, as things change, continue to be resilient and will certainly be a huge refuge for wildlife.

SREENIVASAN: From the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Ocean Legacy Project — Matt Rand, thanks for joining us.

RAND: Thank you.

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