By PETER N. SPOTTS
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
In its waning weeks, the Bush administration is sorting through options that could lead to the largest marine conservation reserves in United States history.
At issue: Proposals to protect at least one of two vast reaches of ocean that host some of the most pristine coral-reef and under-sea mountain ecosystems in the Pacific. One candidate, a loose cluster of islands and atolls in the central Pacific called the Line Islands, covers a patch of ocean larger than Mexico. The other, a section of the Northern Mariana Islands, is larger than Arizona.
The administration has been heavily criticized for its stance on environmental issues such as global warming and for its last-minute efforts to ease some environmental regulations. So its interest in a bold marine-conservation move may seem surprising. But the president “has had a strong interest in the health of the oceans,” says Dennis Heinemann, a senior vice president with Ocean Conservancy, a marine-conservation group in Washington.
In 2006, President Bush established a vast marine reserve along the northwest Hawaiian Islands, the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument. The monument spans an area larger than all of the country's national parks combined.
It's unclear at the moment whether the White House will take the same regulatory approach now. Mr. Bush could establish vast no-take zones, perhaps with exceptions to allow indigenous people to fish there. Or, he could merely endorse the concept of preserving these areas and punt the decision to the incoming Obama administration.
Still, hopes are high that Bush will grant full protection to these areas. “The condition of the oceans is degrading, and it's really been degrading for coral reefs. It's important to preserve these last few relatively untouched parts of the ocean,” Dr. Heinemann says.
The latest effort builds on the 2006 Hawaii designation, says Jay Nelson, who heads the global ocean legacy program at the Pew Environment Group in Washington. Following that designation, the White House asked federal agencies, nongovernment groups, and the research community for more candidates. These included deep-sea coral networks off the US Southeast Coast and a proposal to establish a string of marine protected areas along the continental shelf from Florida to Belize.
In the end, the Marianas and Line Islands were the last candidates standing.
The islands, atolls, and seamounts that would be conserved are remote. But they may also represent unique opportunities for research. In addition to its reefs, a northern Marianas reserve would include a section of the Marianas Trench, formed by the collision of two plates of the Earth's crust and home to the deepest spot on the seafloor. The area hosts 19 species of whales and dolphins. Life thrives in the extreme environments around hydrothermal vents. The seascape includes enormous mud volcanoes and pools of boiling sulfur.
The Line Islands, meanwhile, are feeding stations for migratory fish with an unexpected twist on the traditional food pyramid. “It's an amazing inverted pyramid design,” in which most living organisms sit atop the food chain instead of at the bottom, says Nancy Knowlton, a marine scientist with the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History. Although organisms lower on the food chain are fewer, they reproduce more quickly and so can support a relatively large number of diners. The system gives researchers a good baseline to understand what coral-reef systems used to look like, she says.
The Line Islands also serve as a way station for 21 species of migratory birds and some 19 species of seabird, who come to feed as large fish on a feeding frenzy drive their prey to the surface. “This shows a direct ecological connection between land and sea,” notes William Chandler, vice president for government affairs at the Marine Conservation Biology Institute office in Washington.
The effort is drawing support from the tourist industry, who see the region's reefs as an asset that needs to be safeguarded, as well as from conservation groups and marine scientists.
But the proposal has generated its share of concerns. Some supporters worry that conservation measures won't be tight enough.
Meanwhile, locals have expressed concerns that restrictions will be too tight. Indigenous people in American Samoa and the Marianas were concerned they would be banned from fishing and other traditional practices. There are other worries about Washington impinging on undersea mining projects for minerals on the seafloor off the Marianas Trench. These local concerns are being addressed, says James Connaughton, head of the president's Council on Environmental Quality.
“There are a lot of people who are not quite sure what we might or might not do who are envisioning the worst from their particular perspective,” he says. The assessment team were able to reassure many people that the worst won't happen.
One concern shared by local fishermen and US Pentagon officials centered on navigation rights through any proposed reserve, particularly around the Marianas. But the president's directive to assess the potential marine reserve sites reaffirmed these navigation rights.
The White House faces a deadline of Inauguration Day next month for making any decision on the reserves. But many conservationists say they hope a decision comes by the end of the year.