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

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.

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