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Bush proposes protections for Pacific islands, atolls

August 25, 2008 | 11:35 am

Divers at PalmyraPresident Bush today signaled his  intention to protect some of the Pacific Ocean's most remote and unspoiled islands, atolls and coral reefs from fishing and deep sea mining, asking federal officials to work out the details.

A final decision, expected to be wrapped up before Bush leaves office, could vastly expand the protected marine areas around islands in the central and western Pacific under jurisdiction of the United States.

Bush's proposal includes protecting portions of the northern Mariana Islands, Rose Atoll in American Samoa and various islands and reefs in the Central Pacific, including Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef, Johnston Atoll, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, Baker Island, and Wake Island.

The waters, reefs and deep-water trenches around these islands, possibly extending 200 miles around each of them, could become protected as national monuments or marine sanctuaries.

In a memo issued today, Bush wrote that James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, has advised him that these waters contain "objects of historic and scientific interest ... that may be appropriate for recognition, protection, or improved conservation and management" under various existing laws.

Although the memo lays out various alternatives, Bush used the Antiquities Act a few years ago to establish the world's largest marine protected area -- a giant swath of water that encircles the Northwest Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific. If Bush moves forward on new protections, it's expected that he will use this law again because a monument can be declared and finalized with a stroke of his pen.

The White House memo has unleashed a scramble among officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Interior and Defense departments to gather information and make recommendations to meet the president's quick timeline to wrap this up in the next few months.

"This is an opportunity for President Bush to do something really good that will be looked at as a high point of his administration -- if he does it right," said Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute that has been lobbying for the protections. "By 'right,' I mean he gives big, broad protections and full protections around these islands and atolls, not postage stamp protections."

Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, said that designating these areas as a monument or marine sanctuary does not necessarily mean that they will be fully protected and still could allow destructive fishing or mining. "However, if the president establishes these new sites as no-take reserves, where no extractive activity is allowed, it would be one of the most significant environmental achievements of any U.S. president."

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo of research divers on reef at Palmyra Atoll. Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times

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