Obama to create world's largest ocean preserve

Nearly 1,000 square miles off the Lowcountry coast are sanctuaries, managed like national wildlife areas to foster marine species. An area 100 times larger than that in the Pacific could be expanded, under the ocean protection initiatives announced Tuesday by the White House.

That's perhaps the biggest scale proposal in a wide array of announced protections that also include finfish and shellfish aquaculture, tackling ocean acidification and regional resilience planning.

The protections are "a multi-faceted plan to protect our oceans for future generations. That's what we need. The oceans are under siege. They're imperiled by climate (warming), over-fishing and pollution. And it's all happening simultaneously," said College of Charleston oceanographer Jack DiTullio. Efforts such as promoting aquaculture could have a large direct impact on the Lowcountry economy and jobs, he said.

President Barack Obama is considering a massive expansion to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, officials said. The waters surround a group of mostly uninhabited islands, controlled by the U.S. It sits between Hawaii and American Samoa. The expansion would create the largest marine preserve in the world, adding to a preserve already the size of Utah, protected from drilling, fishing and other actions that could threaten wildlife, according to the White House.

"Marine Protected Areas, these sanctuaries, they work and they're just so important for species to survive," DiTullio said.

The president hasn't settled on the preserve's final boundaries. The administration said it planned to solicit input from fishermen, scientists, politicians, experts in conservation and others before the new protections take effect.

The White House's Council on Environmental Quality said the waters in the south-central Pacific Ocean contain "some of the most pristine tropical marine environments in the world."

"These tropical coral reefs and associated marine ecosystems are also among the most vulnerable areas to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification," the White House said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

Most of the wreckfish along the East Coast is caught off the Lowcountry.

Not too long ago, commercial anglers couldn't get a good price for the under-appreciated deep sea species. It would be sold cheap and distributed to the Northeast where it was retailed as high-dollar "shadow grouper," said marine scientist John Dean.

That's seafood fraud.

Misrepresenting and mislabeling catch to make more money on it is a problem that continues to plague the business from worldwide distribution down to the restaurant plate. The federal government Tuesday signaled for the first time a willingness to strengthen seafood traceability.

It would be a big win for commercial anglers, shellfish harvesters and consumers in South Carolina, where efforts to stop the illegal trade - protecting the local product - have been ramping up for years.

"It's clear the fraud is happening. There's been no consistent mechanism to implement any kind of serious law enforcement action," said Dean, a fisheries researcher who has long advocated better seafood labeling. Oysters today must be tagged from catch to sale maintaining chain of custody to protect public health. In Europe, seafood catches are labeled and tracked by bar code through the supply chain, he said.

"That to me would be the optimal approach," he said.

The move Tuesday comes five years after the U.S. General Accountability Office characterized seafood mislabeling as a major economic and food safety problem and called for a more concerted effort among federal agencies to fight it. Marine and seafood industry groups have championed it.

Oceana, a marine environmental advocate, called the move a confidence builder for consumers.

"Domestic seafood fishermen will likely not have to do anything differently, but it does mean they won't have to compete with mislabeled seafood," said Oceana's campaign director, Beth Lowell.

Although the White House didn't spell out details of its plans to combat black market fishing and seafood fraud, President Obama's announcement will be followed by the formation of a task force to study the issue. According to the White House, 20 percent of the wild marine fish caught each year are part of the black market, at a cost of $23 billion to the legitimate fishing industry.

Last year, Oceana released a study showing 33 percent of more than 1,200 seafood samples tested nationwide were mislabeled.

In Charleston, consumers are buying into tasty, more economical and sustainable local catches, such as wreckfish and triggerfish, thanks to promotion efforts such as the Sustainable Seafood Initiative.

"People are just so much more aware of what they're putting on their plate and where it's being brought in from," said chef Forrest Parker, with the Old Village Post House in Mount Pleasant. "Here in Charleston, there's a clear community between restaurants and fishermen," he said, and mislabeling isn't the problem here that it is elsewhere. But the move could help ensure the survival of beleaguered local fisheries into the future.

Local chef Jacques Larson of Wild Olive and The Obstinate Daughter, restaurants with distinct seafood slants, said he supports making the distribution chain more transparent.

"Even if it's Dan (Long) from Crosby's, I find out the boat name," Larson says, calling himself "very sensitive" to the health of the ocean, its populations and the eaters he serves. That philosophy requires him to be extra vigilant when dealing with non-local seafood.

"You'll hear something called something, and you know damn well it's not," he adds. "Smuggling illegal product is horrifying."

But stopping it is difficult, expensive, manpower consuming. The 2009 accountability office report was met by wide acknowledgement that law enforcement resources are not funded well enough to tackle the problem. Dean was cautious about the Tuesday announcement.

"It's a good thing to say, but until it's backed up with real money in the right places, I'm not optimistic," he said.

Lowell called the announcement an important first step.

"For the policy of the U.S. government to be to fight seafood fraud, this is groundbreaking," she said. "This initiative will forever change the way we think about our seafood."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.