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Bush’s pushes for marine reserves

The president’s ambitious plan would conserve two large swaths of the Pacific.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / December 7, 2008

Coral in much of the Pacific Ocean, such as these specimens on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, are dying faster than previously thought.

Australian Institute of Marine Science/AP/File


In its waning weeks, the Bush administration is sorting through options that could lead to the largest marine conservation reserves in United States history.

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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.