With just a few months before his term ends, U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Friday, Aug. 26, new plans to create the world's largest marine reserve off the coast of Hawaii.

According to the White House, the plan is to expand Hawaii's Papahānaumokuākea (Papa-ha-now-moh-koo-ah-kay-ah) Marine National Monument so that it will cover approximately 582,578 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers) of land and sea — about 50 times bigger than the land area of the Hawaiian Islands. The move emphasizes the extent to which the incumbent president has focused on issues of climate change and conservation during his second term.

On Sept. 1, Obama is set to visit the protected area to address the threat that climate change poses to the ocean. The President will travel to Midway Atoll, which is a remote coral reef that became the site of a pivotal battle during World War II and is now prominent for its monk seals, seabirds and sea turtles. Obama will also visit his native Hawaii to participate in a conference of Pacific Island leaders plus a conference on world conservation in Honolulu.

The new plan will consequently protect underwater habitats and coral reefs that are home to more than 7,000 marine species, including sea turtles and rare whales listed under the Endangered Species Act. The act will ban commercial fishing and drilling in that region of the Pacific Ocean. There are also implications for navigation as voluntary restrictions will be imposed on traveling through certain areas.

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was designated by former President George W. Bush 10 years ago as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. It was later renamed into its current name in honor of two Hawaiian gods, Papahanaumoku and Wakea, husband and wife whom natives believe preside over the earth and sky respectively.

The 2006 proclamation by Bush designated about 139,800 square miles (362,080 square kilometers) in area. Friday's plan stretches the reach all the way to the western edge of the country's territorial waters. The national monument was officially considered a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.

Seth Horstmeyer, Global Ocean Legacy project director of American think-tank Pew Research Center, says only about 3 percent of the oceans on Earth are as protected as the marine reserve in Hawaii.

"We think of Papahānaumokuākea's original designation as a catalyst," Horstmeyer told Reuters. "[W]e're hoping it will be again."

Photo: NOAA's National Ocean Service | Flickr

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