With the stroke of a pen last week, President Bush set aside more square miles of ocean for protection than any other political leader in history.
Three new monuments, surrounding far-flung islands, reefs and atolls scattered across the Pacific, will add 195,000 square miles of protected waters to the 135,000 square miles around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands that Bush protected in 2006.
The designations will ban most commercial fishing and will vastly limit recreational fishing, or fishing by indigenous people or researchers. In all of the protected areas, seafloor mining will be prohibited.
The new areas include the waters surrounding Howland, Baker, Jarvis and Wake islands; Rose, Palmyra and Johnston atolls’ Kingman Reef; and the three northernmost Mariana Islands and the deep seafloor of the Mariana Trench.
“This is a huge day for marine conservation,” said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “It’s going to set yet another great mark for America as we inspire marine conservation activities all around the world.”
Marine conservation groups have long lobbied Bush to burnish his environmental record by leaving a legacy of ocean conservation. They pointed out that such moves would not alienate administration allies in the oil and gas industry, ranching, mining and forestry.
Connaughton and first lady Laura Bush became early converts and worked to persuade the president to turn the Northwest Hawaiian islands into the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
Connaughton was ebullient last week, discussing how federal officials were able to sweep away concerns from commercial fishermen and seafloor mining companies by showing that the areas had few harvestable fish and lucrative minerals.
“Having done the science, we were able to actually take an issue off the table because it wasn’t relevant,” he said.
That wasn’t the case for two previous proposals closer to the mainland United States: protecting deep-water corals in the U.S. Southeast Atlantic coast and pockets in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were dropped after opposition from fishing, oil and gas interests.
The most controversial areas in the conservation measure are those within the proposed Marianas Marine National Monument.
The area will cover more than 12,000 square nautical miles near the three northernmost islands in the 14-island chain and also will include the seafloor and deep water of the adjacent Mariana Trench, which stretches for hundreds of miles.
In a concession to commercial fishermen, the designation will not restrict fishing in the surface waters above the trench. The final Bush proposal also shrank the size of the monument and the extent of regulation being pushed by a local group called Friends of the Monument.
“We’re getting less than we wanted, but that’s OK,” said Agnes McPhetres, vice chairwoman of the group. “This is just the beginning.”
The Mariana Trench seemed to fulfill the “wow factor” sought by Connaughton and others. The trench is deep enough to fit Mount Everest and is five times longer and several times wider than the Grand Canyon.
The trench is lined with active volcanoes and hydrothermal vents that have spawned unique forms of life, including bizarre microbes, worms and crustaceans.
One of the undersea volcanoes has created a pool of sulfur so unusual that the only similar environment “that we know of is on the moon of Io off of Jupiter,” Connaughton said.
Scientists are eager to study how these creatures that can survive “in these incredible harsh environments – that begins to open the door to all kinds of new ways of thinking about life. And that also is going to help inform our understanding about the potential for life beyond Earth.”
Closer to the surface and human existence, many of the protected waters are home to hundreds of species of corals, reef fish and sharks.
The atolls, islands and reefs that will make up the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument are well known for their flourishing marine habitat that tends to be dominated by top predators and are home to millions of nesting sea birds. This moment will include Kingman Reef, which emerges only on low tides, nearby Palmyra Atoll, and Johnston Atoll, which was the site of nuclear blasts. Howard, Baker, Jarvis and Wake islands also are included.
The smallest will be Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, a remote speck in the Pacific near American Samoa. It’s well known for its relatively healthy cover of multicolored corals, including the striking pink coralline algae along its fringing reef.
“The president has given the Earth a Texas-sized gift,” said Diane Regas, who runs the ocean program at the Environmental Defense Center. “The area is nearly 200,000 square miles, which is nearly the size of Texas.”
Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of Pew Environmental Group, considered Bush’s decision a historic moment, coming 137 years after the United States turned Yellowstone into its first national park.
“It’s taken us 137 years to look at the world’s marine environment in a similar way that we look at land,” Reichert said.
Bush’s decision, he said, sends a message to the next president that more care needs to be taken to conserve oceans.