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Jan 122009

The island chain’s reefs, particularly surrounding the three northernmost islands, host 300 species of stony corals.

The second preservation area that will be set up is the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument,  encompassing seven islands and their pristine reef eco-systems: Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Howland, Baker and Jarvis Islands, Johnston Atoll and Wake Island (near the top center left of the map).

“These areas are home to a very large number of nesting seabirds – millions of seabirds – and migratory shorebirds,” Connaughton explained. “They contain pristine corals with hundreds of different fish species and an unusually large abundance of what we call apex predators, things like sharks. They’re also home to endangered turtles, and at Johnston in particular, (they) intersect with the marine community that’s up in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, which the President established as a national monument two years ago.”

The third area is the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument which is the smallest and most remote, says Ocean Conservancy’s Dennis Heinemann. It also is contained within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around American Samoa and, according to Connaughton, is ” a tiny but spectacular coral reef area that’s renowned for the pink hue of its fringing reef that’s caused by coralline algae….

“It has some of the broadest extent of live coral cover of any place on earth…and includes rare species of nesting petrils, shearwaters and terns,” Connaughton explained. “… And the waters around (the Rose Atoll) are home to giant clams, reef sharks, and very large parrot fish, and are a frequent location where you can find humpback and pilot whales and porpoises.”

Heinemann, whose organization helped suggest other areas for consideration, says he’s not sure why the Bush administration chose to announce the monuments now, as he prepares to leave office. But he says that Bush has shown an increasing determination to help clean up the world’s oceans since 2006. (See the White House-produced fact sheet for more.)

Also, he knows that the President was strongly swayed by a film he saw in 2006.

“I think the president has been influenced by a number of people, but right before the Hawaiian monument was designated, there was a showing of a film by Philippe Cousteau at the White House. Some environmental groups worked with Laura Bush and Jim Connaughton, who is a diver and lover of the oceans, to make that happen. And a number of environmental leaders were invited, including our president at Ocean Conservancy. … He (Bush) watched the film and apparently was quite struck by it and moved by it – that’s my understanding. And after dinner, he apparently spent lots of time talking to people who were there. He decided he wanted to act.  He said to Jim Connaughton, ‘Make this happen, I want to do something.’ …And they did. In something like 24 hours they turned it around and had it proclaimed.”

Heinemann explains that the proposals and research and data were already available, so Bush was able to do then what he tends to do so well – make a decision and act on it immediately.

“The sort of flip-side to that is that…both the Northwestern Hawaiian islands monument and the areas that were just designated are extremely remote, largely unpopulated areas, with no strong constituencies that would have mounted opposition. Areas that have been proposed that have been real important to industrial private or recreational interests have never made it.  He sort of cherry picked the places where he could make an impact…but he didn’t have to go against corporations or recreational fishermen,” Heinemann says, pointing out that initially Bush wanted to designate a mass reef preserve in the Gulf of Mexico, but when faced with big interests like oil, commercial fishing and recreational advocates, the president bowed out.

“But we know that President Bush is a fisherman and an outdoorsman, and so he seems to have a connection to the environment, and I think he would like to do well for environment,” Heinemann says. “Also, his wife, Laura, is an avid bird-watcher and we believe she has had an influence on him.”

But Heinemann and several others who have praised Bush this week, also believe his choosing more remote areas in the ocean was the best possible route to take. The D.C.-based scientist says that the decisions to focus on those particular regions will have much broader impact, symbolically and literally.