President Acts to Protect Waters

Well, slap me silly. After “Sounding Off” about Marine Life Protection Act in last week’s Coastline Pilot, I couldn’t have been more shocked by the news of President George W. Bush’s intent to set aside areas of U.S. waters into the Marine Reserve system.

One of the news wires stated that Bush’s actions had “environmentalists choking on their morning cornflakes at the news.” Seems apt that the same president who gleefully opened up pristine wilderness areas to wholesale mining and timber concerns would suddenly become the “blue” guy had the affect of a stun gun to the head.

My glee immediately shifted to suspect. What was under the table? What was he giving away while we were all enraptured with the selection of areas to be protected?

Then I thought, heck, just go with it. Celebrate the fact that the president with one of the worst environmental records has had a change of heart. Maybe it was the wedding of his daughter and the possibility of grandchildren — planetary heirs — that got him thinking. Maybe he thought, well gee whiz, what would those grandkids think if they never got to see a big fish? Or maybe, he’s a big fish eater, and somehow got the message that the seas are running out.

With one stroke of a pen, Bush could protect vast areas of U.S. coastal and territorial waters from fishing, oil exploration and commercial development.

Surprisingly, his action is not without precedent. In 2006, he utilized the Antiquities Act to protect the waters around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and created, what is thus far, the largest marine reserve in the world. I have not had the luxury of visiting those waters, but my friend and IMAX filmmaker, Soames Summerhays, described diving in those waters as astonishing. He suggested the experience was surreal. After decades of diving around the world, he had never experienced such an intact water column.

“The big fish were there,” is how he put it. “The big fish. The little fish. Corals were bountiful and undamaged.”

He echoed the sentiment of so many ocean researchers with whom I have spoken. We have lost so much of our water resources — estimates of 90% in the last 50 years are probably an understatement — that we have forgotten, or simply no longer have an idea, of what bounty the oceans once held. The continued taking of the larger fish — and then the smaller fish that are left — to satisfy the increasing demand of a hungry population has pushed our fisheries to the brink of extinction.

The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, authorizes a president to single-handedly designate any federal public lands as national monuments. This allows the executive branch to side-step Congressional review and an extensive public comment process. Thirteen presidents on both sides of the party line have used the Act to add 125 national monuments covering nearly 100 million acres of federal lands into the register. It is this power that has some press suggesting Bush could be the “Teddy Roosevelt of the seas.”

Last year, the Council on Environmental Quality hosted several closed-door sessions with a select number of noted ocean advocates. They were asked to help identify potential reserves within the United States “economic zone.” This zone is an area that extends into the waters 200 nautical miles from the mainland and U.S.-owned islands around the world.

The advocates, along with several government agencies and stakeholders, created a “wish list” of places to be protected. While not yet public, there are several areas that appear poised for inclusion. The most ambitious of these is an area of more than 600,000 square miles around a number of small islands in the middle of the Central Pacific. The islands are home to biologically rich coral reefs and huge seabird colonies. If selected, this area will be three times larger than the already protected Hawaiian monument.

Other areas on the short list include 100,000 square miles around the Northern Mariana Islands, which includes the 36,000-foot-deep Marianas Trench, a 500-square-mile reserve around the Rose Atoll in the South Pacific, deep-water corals off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, and the reefs and ridges in the Gulf of Mexico. These areas are significant in that they are not yet prime fishing areas, and the process of setting them aside is much simpler than when large stakeholder interests are involved.

Establishing these waters in reserves is a bold move for our sitting president, and no matter what other feelings I might carry about his legacy, I admit that any act of protecting the seas will improve my rating of his performance. OK, not really; but I’ll be extremely happy for the seas, the fish and their buddies, and the fact that my children’s children will inherit a slim chance for a healthy ocean system.

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