Bush Designates Massive New Marine Monuments

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 4:00 PM EST

Coral reefs worldwide are in peril. Marine species, protected by ineffective regulations, are being fished to extinction. Ocean pollution has our seas nearing cataclysm. Fortunately, there's one group that's doing something about it.

The Bush Administration.

It's true. On Tuesday, President Bush, whose environmental policies have not exactly been the hallmark of his administration, designated three new marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, an act that will protect some of the world's most pristine places and give ocean ecosystems a chance at recovery. Together, the Mariana Trench monument, the Central Pacific Islands monument, and the Rose Atoll monument in America Samoa (PDF map and images here), will encompass over 190,000 square miles, roughly the size of the states of Oregon and Washington combined. The protected areas include the habitats for several threatened species, rare underwater geological formations, and some of the oldest known life forms on the DNA tree.

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"The amount of time federal officials put into managing any one section of water is basically nil," says Jay Nelson, Director of the Global Ocean Legacy, a project of the Pew Environment Group. "But it's like a national park. If you draw a line around it, all of a sudden it's somebody's responsibility to take care of it."

The Mariana Trench is particularly important to protect, says Nelson. "The Mariana area is a world phenomenon. If it had been on land, it would have been a national park a 100 years ago. The deepest trench in the world is in US waters, and no one in the United States government thought to make it a park until now. It's as if the government of Nepal hadn't done anything to protect Mount Everest."

This isn't President Bush's first foray into marine protections. In 2006, he created the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which, at 140,000 square miles, is the single largest protected marine area in the world. (I cited the creation of this monument in my list of the four things Bush got right in his presidency.) Today, that monument receives about $12 million dollars a year to fund research, education efforts, and clean-up and maintenance.

But that previous experience illustrates what can go wrong with the monuments created on Tuesday. Nelson admits that the funding for the 2006 monument is not adequate. Though it is cleaner than it was in 2002 or 2003, it is not clear it will be cleaner in 2009 than it was in 2008. Ocean currents bring thousands of pounds of garbage to the shores of the islands within the protected area every year, mostly dropped over the side of ships or brought to sea by polluted rivers. Serious questions exist about the clean-up efforts' ability to keep pace.

Requests for research permits in the monument shot up the year after it was approved, which defied the central purpose of designating it a protected area: decreasing human traffic. "It was because scientists heard about it. They read the newspapers like you and me," says Nelson. Likewise, the newly designated monuments, which currently see little human contact, may become sought after research destinations.

Another factor hampering the protection of marine habitat has been a lack of inter-agency coordination. "There were numerous indications and reports, all off the record, that the three principle agencies responsible for the northwest Hawaiian islands monument—NOAA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state of Hawaii— had a great deal of trouble working together," says Dennis Heinemann of the Ocean Conservancy. In fact, the final management plan for the 2006 monument, delineating the division of responsibilities between the three agencies, was just released over the 2008 holidays.

Funding for the new sites will be key. "The funding that is provided for monuments of this size and that are this remote, which impacts issues like surveillance and enforcement of regulations, is very important," says Heinemann. He says the White House has suggested it wants to eliminate "destructive and extractive activities," but "the devil could be in the details."

As of yet, the particulars of what the Bush administration has in mind for the new monuments are unknown. But environmentalists remain enthusiastic. "Only four percent of the ocean can be called pristine, or untouched by human activities," says Heinemann. "If ocean ecosystems are going to be able to withstand and survive climate change, they need to be as healthy as possible. They can't do it if they are degraded by human influences like overfishing and pollution." Restoring the health and resiliency of damaged ocean ecosystems, and preserving the health and resiliency of pristine ones, means simply leaving them alone. "President Bush, for all of his other failings, has responded to the threat to the oceans," says Heinemann. "He hasn't done the whole job, but he's established momentum."

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