During the Our Ocean conference in Washington, D.C., President Obama announced the creation of the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
"We're protecting fragile ecosystems off the coast of New England, including pristine underseas canyons and seamounts," Obama said during his remarks. "We're helping make the oceans more resilient to climate change ... and we're doing it in a way that respects the fishing industry's unique role in New England's economy and history."
The 4,913-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is the size of Connecticut and has been called an "underwater Yellowstone" and "a deep sea Serengeti."
Hidden beneath the waves off Cape Cod, Mass., is a submerged wonderland of lush forests, canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, vivid corals and extinct volcanoes — all teeming with wildlife such as endangered sperm whales, sea turtles and exotic species that aren't found anywhere else.
"We're phenomenally excited," says environmental activist Brad Sewell of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He notes that the underwater wilderness is unexploited by commercial fishing, mining or drilling.
"It's going to be increasingly important as climate change, its impacts increase," Sewell says. "We need to have these protected reservoirs of resilience."
Opponents are already challenging the move, calling it an illegal use of presidential authority.
"We don't normally create laws in this country by the stroke of an imperial pen," says Bob Vanasse, a spokesman for the National Coalition for Fishing Communities.
He adds, "This is not only an end-run around Congress, it's an end-run around the entire system the Congress created to protect these ocean resources."
Vanasse says the move will seriously hurt the fishing industry: "We anticipate the offshore lobster industry will be affected to the tune of about $10 million per year. On top of that, one of the most affected industries is going to be the Atlantic red crab industry. It is going to be very significantly impacted."
Senior administration officials say to mitigate the financial harm, they're designating a smaller area than planned, and lobster and red crab fisheries have been given a seven-year grace period before they have to comply.
Jon Williams, president of the Atlantic Red Crab Co. in Massachusetts, says his company will survive, but he tells The Associated Press, "It's a big blow to us."
Last month, Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean using the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows him to act unilaterally.
Senior administration officials say the same presidential authority has been invoked more than a hundred times by some 16 presidents to protect national treasures like the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.
Obama struck a personal note during his remarks Thursday, mentioning his childhood in Hawaii. "Anybody who grows up on an island, certainly those of us who grew up in Hawaii, learned very early on to appreciate [the ocean's] magic," he said.
"The notion that the ocean I grew up with is not something I can pass on to my kids and my grandkids is unacceptable," the president said. "It's unimaginable. And so the investment that all of us together make here today is vital for our economy, it's vital for our foreign policy, it's vital for our security, but it's also vital for our spirit. It's vital to who we are."
Obama said his administration "has protected more waters than any in history."
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is hosting the ocean conference, said in a statement, "By protecting ecologically sensitive areas of our ocean, the United States is leading on an issue that is important to people on every continent because of the ocean's connection to food security, shared prosperity and resiliency in the face of climate change."
The ocean conference, according to the statement, was expected to announce more than "120 significant ocean conservation projects, including almost $2 billion in new pledges and commitments to protect more than two million square kilometers in new or expanded marine protected areas."