(CNSNews.com) - The State Department is hosting a two-day conference on the world's oceans, beginning today, and it's expected to produce a raft of announcements and initiatives, including new marine protected areas -- one off the coast of New England -- as well as a ban on single-use plastic bags.
Ahead of the conference, press reports said President Obama on Thursday will establish the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean to permanently protect nearly 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains off the coast of New England.
The White House said the designation will lead to a ban on commercial fishing -- an industry that made New England famous -- but a 7-year exception will be granted for the lobster and red crab industries. Recreational fishing will be allowed within the monument. Mining and drilling will be banned in the protected area.
The designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument marks the 27th time Obama has acted to create or expand a national monument. He has done so unilaterally, using the authorities granted under the Antiquities Act.
State Department officials on Wednesday held a conference call to preview the "2016 Our Ocean Conference."
"We are going to make a lot of announcements," Catherine Novelli, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, told reporters.
She said the price tag attached to the "hundred new initiatives" is expected to be "in the multiple billions of dollars."
"But there's also going to be some other very significant things that aren't really quantifiable in dollars, like new marine protected areas, like bans on plastic bags...one-single-use plastic bags. So there's many things that are going to be announced.
"And the reason why we decided to have them announced sort of throughout the conference is, frankly, there are so many things that are going to be happening that we thought we just couldn't recite them all at once because it's just so huge."
A reporter asked Novelli if the ban on single-use plastic bags will be global, or just in the United States.
"No, it's not worldwide, but there will be certain countries that are going to do it," she responded. "And again, I don't want to steal the thunder of the conference, so it's going to be announced over the course of the next two days. And you will be able to get access to it at the ourocean2016.org site."
Novelli hinted, but wouldn't confirm, that the U.S. is one of the countries that plans to ban single-use plastic bags.
"Just if you follow the conference, you'll see what happens," she said.
Novelli said representatives from 90 countries will be attending the conference, which is the third one since 2014.
"It is hard to imagine that something as vast as the ocean that covers 71 percent of the Earth's surface could be so threatened, but it actually is. It's threatened by overfishing, by pollution, by acidification," Novelli said.
Novelli said climate change is the problem: She said the ocean has absorbed about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, making it 26 percent more acidic than it was before the Industrial Revolution. She also said the ocean has absorbed 90 percent of the additional heat in the Earth's system since the 1970s, leading to the bleaching of coral, rising sea levels and stresses on marine ecosystems.
"And so we know that we need to address these things. We want the ocean to continue to be an integral part of the solution on climate, but it can't do that unless it's healthy, and so that -- these are all the things that we're going to be addressing at the Our Ocean conference."
Novelli said the conference isn't focused on talking -- "We're actually going to do things."
She used mangroves as an example, calling the coastal trees "an incredible carbon sink."
"This is a good thing. They, like, actually absorb this carbon. And that really, as folks are developing their coast, they don't always take that into account and the importance of that. So this is one of the things that we are looking at actually having a lot of work being done around.
"And looking at that, looking at seagrass and how we can preserve those things, how we can look at the blue economy, which is the intersection of commercial use of the ocean and its resources and environment, and how we can develop the blue economy in a way that actually allows us to have not an 'either/or' but an 'and' -- that we can develop economically and preserve the environment."