World's Largest Marine Sanctuary Proposed by U.S.

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
August 26, 2008
A proposal by U.S. President George W. Bush could give national-monument status to some of the world's most remote and pristine Pacific islands and their waters, potentially transforming them into the largest protected marine reserve on the planet.

But its success will hinge on whether the proposed ocean sanctuaries in the western and central Pacific are granted full-protection status, scientists warn.

That would prohibit potentially disruptive activities such as oil and gas drilling, fishing, and mineral extraction. (Read about ocean threats.)

The administration has traditionally been friendly to industry needs.

Just yesterday the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—which falls under Bush's purview—proposed reducing a protective buffer zone against large ships in areas where endangered North Atlantic right whales swim. The move bows to shipping-industry preferences, conservationists say.

The central Pacific islands—which would include Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Jarvis and Howland Islands—could potentially cover about 776,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) of protected area.

The western proposed reserve, comprising the Northern Mariana Islands, could cover as much as 115,000 square miles (297,000 square kilometers). It would include parts of the Mariana Trench, the deepest location on Earth's surface, along with coral reef islands called atolls. (See video of the islands.)

Because the President has exclusive power to protect U.S. resources, conservationists expect the new proposal will become law.

"Great Choice"

Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and National Geographic fellow and emerging explorer, called the selected territories a "great choice." (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

The waters of the central Pacific islands are home to some of the best preserved coral ecosystems in the world, Sala said.

Any one of the central Pacific islands in the proposed sanctuary contains five times as many coral species as the entire Florida Keys, as well as hundreds of fish species; dozens of species of seabirds; and numerous whale, dolphin, and sea turtle species.

"These are among the only base lines that we have left of what the ocean was like hundreds of years ago," Sala said.

The waters off Kingman Reef, for instance, are dominated by gray sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, and other shark species.

"These places are completely different from what we know anywhere else. They're totally dominated by their predators," Sala said.

"Imagine the Serengeti with five lions per wildebeest. This is Kingman Reef."

(See photos of the world's oceans.)

Extended Protection

Many of the central Pacific islands are already fully protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but the protection zone extends only 3 to 12 nautical miles (3.5 to 14.8 miles/5.6 kilometers to 22.2 kilometers) from each island.

Bush could extend that protection to 200 nautical miles (230 miles/370 kilometers)—under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows Presidents to protect any U.S. areas they deem significant.

But to ensure that the monument islands fully benefit from their new status, they will have to be fully protected from all fishing, drilling, and mining activities, scientists say.

"You wouldn't necessarily need to have the entire thing protected, but it's very important to have key areas fully protected," said Dennis Heinemann, a senior scientist at the conservation group the Ocean Conservancy.

Under the Antiquities Act, the President can grant various levels of federal protection to a national monument, ranging from a "no take, no go" status—in which people and industries are not allowed to take anything from the areas or even to visit them—to a more flexible situation where certain activities are allowed.

"There is risk in this from a conservation standpoint, in that if it doesn't go right, it could be a step backward," said Amanda Leland, policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental-advocacy group that was consulted by the White House on the new monument proposal.

Cause for Optimism?

While the Bush Administration's environmental record has often provoked ire among conservationists, the Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental groups are cautiously optimistic that Bush will grant the proposed sanctuaries full protection.

"If he does this before he leaves office, he could go down in history as being the best president on ocean conservation," Leland said.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the areas being considered are also of little commercial value: Their remoteness makes drilling or mining prohibitively expensive.

"This is low-hanging fruit," National Geographic's Sala said. "It has no commercial value, except [for] fishing."

Yet migrating schools of tuna pass through the region and could be targeted by commercial fisheries, Sala added.

"I bet most of the opposition for the enlargement of the protection will come from the tuna-fishing industries," he added.

(Related photos: "Tuna Demand Pressures Wild Stocks" [August 3, 2007].)

Management Challenge

Conservationists are also hopeful the initiative will pass with full protection, because Bush has done it before.

In 2006 Bush created the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. At the time it was the largest marine sanctuary in the world.

But even if all of the President's proposed territories are granted national-monument status, there is the question of whether the government has the resources to adequately manage them.

The total area that Bush is proposing to protect is nearly as large as Texas and Alaska combined.

The Hawaiian marine national monument is six times smaller, and it is already proving a challenge to maintain.

Two years after its creation, scientists say Papahānaumokuākea still lacks a comprehensive management plan, and funds for debris cleanup in the region have been drastically cut. (Photo: "Troubled Hawaiian 'Treasure' to Welcome Visitors" [July 23, 2007].)

Heinemann of the Ocean Conservancy sees many parallels between Papahānaumokuākea and the ocean sanctuaries Bush is now proposing.

"It's largely uninhabited, and it's difficult and expensive to do surveillance and enforce regulations," he said. "That will be true also with these other areas."

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