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Obama Creates World's Largest Wildlife Sanctuary

With a stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama didn't just quadruple the size of a national marine monument -- he created the largest protected area on the planet.

The move was made official on August 26, when Obama issued an executive order expanding the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument from its original 140,000 square miles to 582,578 square miles, according to National Geographic.

Obama's order marked the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, best known for operating parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Crater Lake. Papahānaumokuākea -- an ocean reserve off the Hawaiian islands known for its stunning biodiversity -- is now larger than all other National Park Service holdings combined.

Papahānaumokuākea covers the world's largest seabird gathering site, according to The Washington Post, with more than 14 million birds. It's also home to endangered species like Laysan albatrosses and Hawaiian monk seals.

Beneath the waters are some of the world's largest seamounts -- mountains within the ocean -- reaching up to 14,000 feet high, as well as the world's oldest living animal, a black sea coral that has lived for an estimated 4,500 years.

Earlier this year, Sierra Club Hawaii executive director Marti Townsend told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that safeguarding the waters off Hawaii isn't optional if conservationists are to preserve ocean biodiversity. The area is home to an estimated 7,000 marine animals, including many that have yet to be studied by scientists, the newspaper said.

"This is an opportunity for Hawaii to protect its own ocean resources and the health of its ocean," Townsend said, "not only for the people of Hawaii who are directly relying on this as their own refrigerator, but also for the world because the oceans are dying."

A key part of Obama's order maintains the Papahānaumokuākea expansion as a "no-take zone," which means the national monument is off-limits to commercial fishing and other resource extraction operations, National Geographic reported.

That doesn't sit well with the fishing industry, which fought the expansion of the monument. Sen. Brian Shatz, the senior senator from Hawaii, worked out a compromise that prevented extending the monument eastward. That was a concession to traditional Hawaiian fishing communities, National Geographic noted, preserving the livelihoods of fishermen from Kauai and Niihau islands.

Obama is just the latest president to further efforts to preserve the waters off Hawaii. Papahānaumokuākea National Monument was originally dedicated by former President George W. Bush in 2006, drawing on powers granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt.

“Presidents in their last year of office need to do what’s visionary,” historian Douglas Brinkley told National Geographic. “It’s not about ‘what I can get in the last year.’ It’s about the long-term, which is the essence of conservation.”

Sources: National Geographic, The Washington Post, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument / Photo credit: James Watt/Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

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