Bush moves to protect deepest reaches of Pacific Ocean

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 5, 2009 

Herbivorous fish swim amid the coral.

COUNCIL ON ENVIROMENTAL QUALITY

WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush on Tuesday will create three new marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean to protect the deepest place on Earth, some of the last pristine corals and sanctuaries for vanishing marine species.

The three monuments — in the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, the Rose Atoll off American Samoa and remote islands in the central Pacific — cover 195,280 square miles, the largest protected area of ocean.

Conservationists and the White House declared a new era for protection of unique and endangered places in the ocean, opportunities of scientific discovery and an important effort to protect some of the last places where the ocean still looks like the abundant world of centuries or even thousands of years past.

The Marianas Marine National Monument will protect the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth — deeper than Mount Everest is high and explored for the first time only in 1960. The three monuments also protect corals and the ecosystems that include large migratory, resting and feeding sea birds, and endangered animals such as sea turtles.

"To me and the president and first lady, one of the things that really affected us in learning from the scientists is these locations are truly among the last pristine areas in marine environments on Earth," White House Council on Environmental Quality chairman James Connaughton told reporters Monday. "This is a huge day for marine conservation."

"The president has given the world a Texas-sized gift," said Diane Regas, manager of the ocean program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Joshua S. Reichert of the Pew Environment Group said it had taken more than a century to start to protect unique places in the ocean in the way that America has protected its treasured places as natural parks on land.

In 2006, Bush also protected 139,793 square miles in the Papahanaumokuakea Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. In all, Bush has protected more of the oceans than anyone else in the world, Reichert said.

The Marianas Marine National Monument will include the Mariana Trench and a string of volcanoes and thermal vents that create a harsh but thriving ecosystem. The area is also home to 300 species of stony corals and some of the highest fish abundance and diversity in the Mariana Islands, Connaughton said.

The Pacific Remote Islands National Monument will include coral reefs surrounding Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Howland, Baker and Jarvis islands and Johnston Atoll and Wake Island, home to nesting sea birds and migratory shore birds, corals with hundreds of fish species and endangered turtles.

Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, a remote area off American Samoa, is a "tiny but spectacular" coral reef area also known for rare birds, including petrels, and reef sharks and parrot fish. Humpback and pilot whales and porpoises are frequently found there as well, Connaughton said.

Commercial fishing and recreational fishing will be forbidden within 50 miles of the islands. Connaughton said scientists gave strong support for going well beyond the three-mile zone, but "much less foundation for going beyond 50."

Recreational fishing permits will be considered on a limited basis.

The Mariana Trench area will protect the deep ocean, but not the fish in the waters above the rim of the underwater canyon.

The protection also means no mining for deep-sea minerals. Studies showed that minerals are not likely in the conservation areas, Connaughton said.

The agreements will protect research and indigenous practices. The military will continue to operate in the monuments.

Scientists say the world's oceans are under assault from overfishing, fertilizer runoff that leaves dead zones, and both warming and acidification as a result of carbon dioxide releases from fossil fuel burning.

Connaughton said there's a bipartisan consensus in favor of better ocean conservation. The bigger agenda will include efforts to end overfishing by 2010, restore money for ocean research and re-examine energy and minerals development and navigation so that conservation isn't thwarted.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society and son of famed sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, said in a commentary in The Modesto Bee in October, which also was sent to the White House to support the idea of new monuments, that while 72 percent of the Earth is covered by water, "much of its vitality today is threatened."

"Ninety percent of the world's large predatory fish are now gone, while pollution and habitat destruction have touched virtually every major body of water," he wrote. "But we are at the frontier of a clear understanding of how to stop the damage as we restore and protect these vital areas and resources, and we have before us the opportunity to protect a truly unique marine ecosystem."

ON THE WEB

Photos and facts from Pew

Information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on ocean acidification and global warming

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