Largest Marine Reserve Declared; Home to Mariana Trench
Dina Cappiello in Washington, D.C.
|January 6, 2009|
The home of a giant land crab, a sunken island ringed by pink-colored coral, and equatorial waters teeming with sharks and other predators have been designated national marine monuments by U.S. President George W. Bush in the largest marine conservation effort in history. (
The three areas—totaling some 195,274 square miles (505,757 square kilometers)—include the Mariana Trench and the waters and corals surrounding three uninhabited islands in the Northern Mariana Islands, Rose Atoll in American Samoa, and seven islands strung along the equator in the central Pacific Ocean.
"We should be very happy because it's the largest marine area ever protected," said Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and National Geographic fellow and emerging explorer. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)
"We don't need more research to know that more of these remote intact places need to be protected," said Sala, who has helped conduct some of the few scientific surveys in the remote central Pacific islands, particularly in the pristine Kingman Reef.
"This is the only chance we have left to protect parts of the ocean that are still natural."
Palmyra Atoll, a region included in the monument, and Kingman Reef are among the most biodiverse marine ecosystems on earth, according to Suzanne Case, Hawaii director of the nonprofit the Nature Conservancy.
"At a time when positive news about our seas is rare, the designation of three new marine national monuments in the Pacific is a landmark to be celebrated," she added.
The areas harbor the highest fish biomass in the Pacific and are one of the few places still dominated by sharks and other predators, Case said in an email.
Each location harbors unique species—such as a bird that incubates its eggs in the heat of underwater volcanoes—and some of the rarest geological formations on Earth, including a sulfur pool. The only other known pool exists on Jupiter's moon Io.
All will be protected as national monuments—the same status afforded to statues and cultural sites—under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The law allows the government to immediately phase out commercial fishing and other extractive uses.
It will be the second time Bush has used the law to protect marine resources.
Two years ago, the president made a huge swath of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument, barring fishing, oil and gas extraction, and tourism from its waters and coral reefs. At the time, that area was the largest conservation area in the world.
The three areas to be designated Tuesday are larger, though the decisions came with some opposition.
Northern Mariana Islands government officials and indigenous communities, for instance, initially objected to the monument designation, citing concerns about sovereignty, fishing, and mineral exploration.
Recreational fishing, tourism, and scientific research with a federal permit could still occur inside the three areas under the new law. The designations will not conflict with U.S. military activities or freedom of navigation, White House officials said.
The decisions also fell short in size and scope of what conservationists, including Sala, had hoped for.
"The bottom line is that less than a tenth of one percent of the ocean is protected," Sala said, versus 12 percent of land area locked up in reserves.
Reserves are important conservation strategies, Sala said, in that pristine environments can be thought of "savings accounts."
That's because protecting large areas allows marine life to flourish and eventually spill over into neighboring ecosystems, constantly replenishing the seas.
Christine Dell'Amore of National Geographic News contributed to this report.
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