WASHINGTON — Vowing to protect fragile marine life, President Barack Obama acted Tuesday to create the world's largest ocean preserve by expanding a national monument his predecessor established in waters thousands of miles from the American mainland.
The designation for a remote stretch of the Pacific Ocean marks a major symbolic victory for environmentalists, who have urged the president to take action on his own to protect the planet as Congress turns its focus elsewhere. But the initiative will have limited practical implications because little fishing or drilling are taking place even without the new protections.
Protecting the world's oceans and the ecosystems that thrive deep under the surface is a task that's bigger than any one country but the United States must take the lead, Obama said, announcing the initiative during an ocean conservation conference.
"Let's make sure that years from now we can look our children in the eye and tell them that, yes, we did our part, we took action, and we led the way toward a safer, more stable world," he said in a video message.
Obama hasn't settled on the final boundaries for the expanded Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, and will solicit opinions from fishermen, scientists and conservation experts. Obama's senior counselor, John Podesta, said that process would start immediately and wrap up "in the very near future."
Republican President George W. Bush created the monument in 2009 by setting aside waters that encircle an array of remote islands in the south-central Pacific, between Hawaii and American Samoa.
Bush's protections extend about 50 miles from the shore of the U.S.-administered islands, but maritime law gives the United States control up to 200 nautical miles from the coast, forming the outer limit of what Obama could protect using the 1906 Antiquities Act.
Conservation groups urged Obama to be bold. If Obama opts for the full 200 miles, conservation groups said, he could roughly double the amount of ocean that's protected worldwide.
A geographic analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated Obama could protect more than 780,000 square miles — almost nine times what Bush set aside — and far more if he included the waters around other U.S. islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Republicans accused Obama of overreaching. Rep. John Fleming, R-La., who chairs the House subpanel dealing with oceans and wildlife, said Obama was invoking climate change even though the century-old Antiquities Act wasn't intended to deal with global warming.