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President Obama created the world's largest protected area in the Pacific Ocean

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Three times larger than California

Blue tang fish swims in front of yellow coral in the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Blue tang fish swims in front of yellow coral in the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Jim Maragos/USFWS

Back in early 2009, shortly before he left office, outgoing President George W. Bush created three massive protected areas in a few parts of the Pacific Ocean controlled by the United States (a move undertaken at the behest of then-First Lady Laura Bush). This week, President Obama moved to expand one of those areas, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument — which encompasses the waters around several island chains southwest of Hawaii — to six times its previous size. The resulting area protected area now covers about 490,000 square miles and is the largest marine reserve on the planet, as well as the largest protected area in the world.

Map of Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (Credit: NOAA)

Map of the previous size of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (outlined in blue, with protected areas designated in shaded gray) (Credit: NOAA)

That means commercial fishing, dumping, and removal of any species, coral, or other natural features, is now prohibited in an area of the Pacific three times larger than California. However, scientific sampling and research are permitted. The area has been found to contain five species of protected sea turtles, and undersea mountains with deepwater coral that are thousands of years old. Obama's move isn't quite as big as environmentalists were hoping for, but it does provide important protections to some of America's long-abused natural resources.