Bush to Create Largest Marine Sanctuary

Plan to protect 140,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean from fishing and coral mining is a dramatic departure for the administration. President Bush today will create the world’s largest marine protected area, a total of 140,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean surrounding a necklace of islands and atolls that stretch from the main Hawaiian Islands to Midway Atoll and beyond, senior administration officials said.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument will be larger than all of America’s national parks combined. Fishing will be phased out, and the mining of coral for jewelry will be prohibited, along with other practices that can damage delicate reefs.

“With a stroke of pen, the president not only can accomplish the single largest act of conservation in U.S. history, but he can inspire the American public on the broader importance of our ocean and coastal environments,” said a senior administration official who requested anonymity so as to not upstage Bush’s announcement today.

The decision is a turnaround for the Bush administration, which five years ago considered stripping more limited protections from the area that President Clinton had declared a coral reef ecosystem reserve. It’s also a sharp departure for an administration that has pushed to privatize some federal lands and designated less wilderness than most presidents over the past 40 years.

A turning point came in April, when Bush sat through a 65-minute private White House screening of a PBS documentary that unveiled the beauty of — and perils facing — the archipelago’s aquamarine waters, its nesting sea birds, sea turtles and sleepy-eyed monk seals, which face extinction.

The film seemed to catch Bush’s imagination, according to senior officials and others in attendance. The President popped up from his front-row seat after the screening, congratulated filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, and urged the White House staff to get moving on protecting these waters.

“He was enthusiastic,” Cousteau said. “The show had a major impact on him, the way my father’s shows had on so many people. I think he really made a discovery — a connection between the quality of our lives and the oceans.”

The northwest Hawaiian Islands are a collection of reefs and 10 points of emergent lands — islands, atolls and pinnacles. Although the total emergent land-mass is small, the isolation has kept these islands relatively undisturbed and increased their importance to wildlife.

About 14 million sea birds, including albatross and various species of terns, nest on these islands. Pods of spinner dolphins frolic in lagoons, leaping ahead of boats and making full twists in the air.