World’s Largest Marine Protection Area Established

WASHINGTON ~ President George W. Bush defended his record on the environment this week as he designated three regions in the Pacific Ocean as the world’s largest marine protected areas.

The trio of “marine national monuments” span a total of 505,757 square kilometers and include the Mariana Trench and northern Mariana Islands, the Rose Atoll in American Samoa and a chain of remote islands in the Central Pacific.

“The monuments will prohibit resource destruction or extraction, waste dumping and commercial fishing,” Bush said in a speech on Tuesday.

“They will allow for research, free passage, and recreation – including the possibility of recreational fishing one day. For seabirds and marine life, they will be sanctuaries to grow and thrive. For scientists, they will be places to extend the frontiers of discovery,” he added.

“And for the American people, they will be places that honor our duty to be good stewards of the Almighty’s creation.”

Active volcanoes along the seabed, the Earth’s deepest point, hydrothermal vents and boiling sulfur pools are among the underwater curiosities protected under the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

Pristine coral reefs abound and rare species such as sharks, whales, turtles, seabirds and Hawaiian monk seals inhabit the regions concerned by the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument divided into seven areas, including Wake Island, the site of a World War II battle between Japanese and US forces.

Finally, the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument is to protect a small but dense coral reef known for its pink shade in a remote area around American Samoa.

Bush, an avid fisherman who leaves office this month to make way for president-elect Barack Obama, defended his administration against critics who say he has fallen short on environmental interests.

“The new steps I’ve announced today are the capstone of an eight-year commitment to strong environmental protection and conservation,” Bush said, touting his efforts to stem air pollution, raise fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and invest in alternative energy sources.

“And while there’s a lot more work to be done, we have done our part to leave behind a cleaner and healthier and better world for those who follow us on this Earth.”

Bush faced opposition from major fisheries, federal oceanic administrators, the Defense Department and even the vice president over the monument designations, amid fears that any restrictions on freedom of the seas could create a slippery slope.

Bush “made explicit that nothing in the proclamations impairs or otherwise affects the activities of the US Department of Defense (DoD),” the White House said in a statement.

“The DoD is ensured full freedom of navigation in accordance with the law of the sea, and the US Navy can continue effective training to maintain its antisubmarine warfare and other capabilities.”

The White House also said some recreational fishing in the protected areas could be allowed on a case-by-case basis.

“Scientific and recreational activities may be permitted consistent with the care and management of the protected resources of these monuments.”

Bush also announced that the marine national monument he created in 2006 in the northwestern Hawaiian islands – called Papahanaumokuakea – was a candidate for a UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination, the first US site in 15 years.

Bush’s preservation move brought him rare praise from environmental conservation groups.

“He has a real soft spot for marine environments. I understand that his wife has the same soft spot,” said Roger McManus, vice president of marine programs at Conservation International, of Bush and his wife, Laura.

“Everybody deserves a little credit. He gets to go home to Texas being the person on the planet who has done more than anybody” to establish marine protected areas, McManus said.

Collectively, the three areas nudge out the Phoenix Island Protected Area, established in 2008 by the South Pacific nation of Kiribati as the world’s largest marine protected area.

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