Bush plan: world's largest ocean reserve

A Montana-sized chunk of ocean would be off limits to fishing boats and tourists in a bid to protect fragile reefs.

With the stroke of a pen, President Bush has established the largest ocean wildlife reserve in the world, centered along a string of islands, reefs, and atolls that stretch 1,400 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.

Other reef systems, such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, are larger. But only a third of that UN-designated World Heritage reef is protected, analysts say, leaving far more of it open to exploitation.

The move comes from an administration not known as the darling of the environmental and conservation crowd. But it's drawing kudos from a variety of marine-conservation groups. The region's relative isolation has allowed it to retain some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world. The president's proclamation Thursday, which designated the area as a national monument, immediately created a reserve that covers some 140,000 square miles, more territory than all of America's national parks combined.

"This is just amazing," says Ellen Athas, ecosystems-protection director for the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, who served on the president's Council on Environmental Quality under Bill Clinton. "This is an important first step in protecting some of the world's healthiest reefs for future generations."

The key provisions include:

•Restricting tourism activities, such as fishing and diving, to Midway Island, at the far northwest end of the chain.

•Phasing out commercial fishing over the next five years and banning it thereafter.

•Banning all resource extraction and waste-dumping.

•Banning "boats for hire," only allowing access to the area for research benefiting the reserve and for educational purposes.

•Preserving access for native Hawaiians – whose ancestors hopscotched down the chain to settle the Hawaiian Islands – for religious and cultural uses.

"This represents the first big symbol of – and inspiration for – a new generation of ocean conservation," says a senior White House official, who notes that the administration has been working on the issue for five years. "These are the Galápagos Islands in our own backyard."

Several analysts add that, in some respects, the move is a political no-brainer for the White House. Hawaii's Republican governor, Linda Lingle, has imposed similar restrictions in the region out to the state's three-mile limit, which built local support for expanding the restrictions. Except for a handful of commercial fishermen, the proposal has drawn virtually no opposition from other commercial interests because the region lacks oil deposits and other easily exploitable resources.

Still, "this is an extraordinary act for any sitting president," enthuses Joshua Reichert, director of policy initiatives and the environment program for the Pew Charitable Trust.

For all their biological diversity, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are a chain of geophysical leftovers – about 10 islands and 100 coral atolls – that have emerged over geological time. They point to the eventual future for today's main islands as the crust continues to move and generate new undersea volcanoes to the southeast of the chain.

The first efforts to conserve the area came under Teddy Roosevelt, who designated the islands as national wildlife sanctuaries to protect seabird populations.

The next major move came under President Clinton, who signed an executive order in 2000 setting portions of the region aside as a national marine sanctuary. But executive orders can be rescinded by subsequent presidents.

President Bush's proclamation makes this permanent.

A key reason for the excitement among scientist and conservation groups is the reefs' relatively untrammeled condition. As a result, they represent the best example of what coral reef ecosystems should look like at a time many reefs around the world are under increasing stress from human and natural causes. Thus, it can provide a blueprint for restoration efforts elsewhere.

And their isolation has led to the evolution there of a large number of rare species of marine life found nowhere else in the world, notes Aulani Wilhelm, acting manager of the existing reserve. "This really is a living laboratory," she says.

To accelerate the phase-out of commercial fishing, one conservation group has expressed interest in negotiating a buyout of their permits, in effect retiring them immediately. Researchers point out that even the small amount of commercial fishing that has taken place in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands has virtually wiped out the chain's lobster population. The chain's bottom-dwelling fish are under increased pressure as well, researchers say.

And it's unclear what sort of stimulus this move will provide for setting other areas aside along US coasts because of the remote location, lack of deep commercial controversies, and a congressional moratorium on additional reserves. Still, a new reserve would represent a significant addition to those being established by other Pacific nations, such as Fiji and Kiribati.

Says one administration official: "By setting aside something on this scale, this is telling the rest of the world that the US is willing to walk the walk" on marine conservation.

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