The plan would require federal agencies to take multiple initiatives to address pollution, overfishing and acidification of ocean water, which is driven by climate change.
"Rising levels of carbon dioxide are causing our oceans to acidify. Pollution endangers marine life. Overfishing threatens whole species," Obama said in televised statement to an international conference on ocean policy hosted by the State Department in Washington.
"If we ignore these problems, if we drain our oceans of their resources, we won't just be squandering one of humanity's greatest treasures. We'll be cutting off one of the world's major sources of food and economic growth, including for the United States."
The announcement provides further evidence of Obama's willingness to use his executive authority to advance priorities in the face of congressional stalemate, and it quickly drew criticism from congressional Republicans, who contend the administration over-regulates natural resources industries and that the president has over-reached his constitutional powers.
"This is yet another example of how an imperial president is intent on taking unilateral action, behind closed doors, to impose new regulations and layers of restrictive red-tape," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). "Oceans, like our federal lands, are intended to be multiple-use and open for a wide range of economic activities that includes fishing, recreation, conservation, and energy production."
Among the ocean plan's most ambitious and controversial steps would be expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument southwest of Hawaii. In January 2009, President George W. Bush gave monument status to nearly 87,000 square miles around Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands; Johnston, Wake, and Palmyra Atolls; and Kingman Reef. The islands are uninhabited, and the area is one the few pristine stretches of marine environment in the world and home to thousands of migratory birds, fish and mammals.
The Obama plan envisions extending monument protection from the current limit of 50 nautical miles around the islands to 200 miles, thereby limiting fishing and energy development over a far larger expanse of ocean. The proposal could more than double the area of ocean protected by the United States, environmental groups said.
The expanded protections, which under federal law the president can order without congressional approval, could go into effect this year after a public comment period.
Joshua S. Reichert, executive vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, said he expected considerable resistance to the expansion plan from the domestic tuna industry. But he said Pew estimates that about 1% to 3% of the U.S. annual tuna catch would be affected by the plan if it went forward.
"The importance of these uninhabited islands is far greater than the value of the fish there," Reichert said. The proposed protection zone holds some of the world's "richest marine life and least disturbed areas," he said. "It's immensely valuable to science and home to vast numbers of ocean species. The importance of keeping these places intact far transcends the short-term value of what can be extracted for commercial gain."
The president also established a task force of at least a dozen federal agencies, including the Pentagon and Justice Department, that must develop recommendations to better combat seafood fraud and illegal fishing within the next six months.
Illegal seafood accounts for one-fifth to one-third of wild-caught seafood imported to the U.S. in 2011, according to a recent study in the journal, Marine Policy. Further, about one-third of seafood is mislabeled, according to a study last year by the environmental group Oceana, which analyzed more than 1,200 seafood samples bought in 21 states. The study found that fish sold as snapper was misidentified 87% of the time and tuna, mislabeled 59% of time.
"Because our seafood travels through an increasingly long, complex and non-transparent supply chain, there are numerous opportunities for seafood fraud to occur and illegally caught fish to enter the U.S. market," said Beth Lowell, director of Oceana's Stop Seafood Fraud campaign. "By tracing our seafood from boat to plate, consumers will have more information about the fish they purchase."
The White House plan would also improve monitoring of ocean acidification, fueled by the ever-greater amounts of carbon dioxide the oceans absorb. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by about 40% since the preindustrial era, thanks to the combustion of fossil fuels, according to a report issued Tuesday by the White House Office of Science and Technology.