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the podium | Nigella Hillgarth

A rare bipartisan effort to protect ocean habitats

President Obama’s recent designation of marine protection to vast, new areas of the central Pacific Ocean builds directly off of prior national monument designations of his predecessor, George W. Bush. This rare, bipartisan support for such conservation policies in acrimonious political times reflects the building momentum to protect large expanses of ocean across the globe. Surprisingly, the recent decade-long burst of designating large marine-protected areas around the world has some of its principal roots in Boston.

In 2008, with the support of the New England Aquarium and Conservation International, the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati created a California-sized marine-protected area around the pristine Phoenix Islands, which are located about half way between Hawaii and New Zealand. The announcement of such a major environmental commitment from a small island developing state was lauded around the world. That commitment has inspired others, and since then several, large marine protected areas in excess of 150,000 square kilometers (about the size of Illinois) have been announced around the globe. Prior to 2008, about 1 percent of the oceans had some level of marine protection. In the six years since, at least 3.2 percent of global marine waters now enjoy some kind of legal protection, a figure that is growing steadily. International agreements have set an ambitious goal of 10 percent of the world’s oceans enjoying some kind of marine protection status by 2020.


The recent US expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument helps carry that momentum forward and also more closely links other near-by marine protected areas. Part of the newly expanded marine protected areas includes two islands under American jurisdiction that make up the remainder of the Phoenix Islands archipelago.

Last weekend, government officials from Kiribati and other partners of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area met in Boston to discuss the challenges of managing such an important and large marine-protected area. Among the challenges are financing the operating costs and balancing the ecological needs and existing economic activities within the area. The government of Kiribati announced earlier this year that it would phase out, ahead of schedule, commercial tuna fishing throughout most (99.4 percent) of the Kiribati controlled Phoenix Islands Protected Area by Jan. 1.


President Obama did not extend protection to the proposed maximum area of 200 miles around the US-controlled Phoenix Islands, to the disappointment of some environmental groups. Even in the beloved whale watching waters just 25 miles east of Boston in the Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary, commercial fishing exists alongside protected humpback whales feeding with their calves despite high entanglement rates for large whales in fishing gear.

Marine conservation efforts do not move forward perfectly, but maintaining the forward progress is vital. The movement to create marine protected areas started a full century later than the land protection movement that has gifted us some of our most valued American treasures in our national parks, forests and monuments.

Today, the public awareness of rapidly declining coral reefs, overfishing, including Massachusetts once super-abundant cod, and the broad cascading effects of climate change are helping to build the momentum to create marine protected areas. A century ago in similarly acrimonious political times, Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson responded to public concern and started designating federally protected lands. Today, American presidents of both parties are also recognizing the need to protect large, vital ocean habitats.

Nigella Hillgarth is president and CEO of the New England Aquarium.