Coral reefs worldwide are in peril. Marine species, protected by ineffective regulations, are being fished to extinction. Ocean pollution has our seas nearing cataclysm. Fortunately, there's one group that's doing something about it.
The Bush Administration.
It's true. On Tuesday, President Bush, whose environmental policies have not exactly been the hallmark of his administration, designated three new marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean, an act that will protect some of the world's most pristine places and give ocean ecosystems a chance at recovery. Together, the Mariana Trench monument, the Central Pacific Islands monument, and the Rose Atoll monument in America Samoa (PDF map and images here), will encompass over 190,000 square miles, roughly the size of the states of Oregon and Washington combined. The protected areas include the habitats for several threatened species, rare underwater geological formations, and some of the oldest known life forms on the DNA tree.
"The amount of time federal officials put into managing any one section of water is basically nil," says Jay Nelson, Director of the Global Ocean Legacy, a project of the Pew Environment Group. "But it's like a national park. If you draw a line around it, all of a sudden it's somebody's responsibility to take care of it."
There's a "but" coming. You knew there'd be a "but," didn't you?
But that previous experience [with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument] illustrates what can go wrong with the monuments created on Tuesday. Nelson admits that the funding for the 2006 monument is not adequate. Though it is cleaner than it was in 2002 or 2003, it is not clear it will be cleaner in 2009 than it was in 2008. Ocean currents bring thousands of pounds of garbage to the shores of the islands within the protected area every year, mostly dropped over the side of ships or brought to sea by polluted rivers. Serious questions exist about the clean-up efforts' ability to keep pace.What, you're surprised that Bush gives national monuments nothing but pocket change for a budget and then creates such a buffoonish bureaucracy that bugger-all gets done?
Requests for research permits in the monument shot up the year after it was approved, which defied the central purpose of designating it a protected area: decreasing human traffic. "It was because scientists heard about it. They read the newspapers like you and me," says Nelson. Likewise, the newly designated monuments, which currently see little human contact, may become sought after research destinations.
Another factor hampering the protection of marine habitat has been a lack of inter-agency coordination. "There were numerous indications and reports, all off the record, that the three principle agencies responsible for the northwest Hawaiian islands monument—NOAA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state of Hawaii— had a great deal of trouble working together," says Dennis Heinemann of the Ocean Conservancy. In fact, the final management plan for the 2006 monument, delineating the division of responsibilities between the three agencies, was just released over the 2008 holidays.
So no. I'm not going to applaud Bush for finally doing something nice. It's far too little, far too late. It would be like thanking an arsonist for rescuing the dog after setting fire to a house full of cats, kids, and elderly folks.