08/12/2009 - Three new marine national monuments reflect a growing appreciation of the oceans and the need to protect them.
“One of the most exciting discoveries of the 20th century was sulfur volcanism on Io, the innermost (major) moon of Jupiter. Last night we came across another extreme of sulfur volcanism in the Solar System, a convecting pool of liquid sulfur under more than 40 atmospheres of pressure!”
Dr. Robert W. Embley, a geologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, jotted this impassioned note in his expedition log in 2004 after his deepwater robot emerged from waters in the Pacific Ocean just off the Northern Mariana Islands. The view of this active volcano on the ocean floor was mesmerizing, and the discovery further confirmed what specialists in many fields and lay people have realized with growing awe and appreciation: The site has distinctive scientific, ecological, environmental, cultural and economic importance.
And this area, some 5,500 miles west of Los Angeles, will retain its significance, because it, and two other Pacific sites with their own remarkable features, were declared marine national monuments by President George W. Bush in January. These places are now permanently off limits to virtually all extractive activities, protected as living laboratories for scientists and contemplative respites for eco-tourists and ocean enthusiasts.
The Marianas monument, within the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, includes hydrothermal vents, the neighboring coral reef ecosystem and the famed Marianas Trench, the deepest canyon on Earth at almost 36,000 feet (“it could swallow Mt. Everest with room to spare,” notes Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group). The Pacific Remote Islands Monument encompasses seven islands in the Central Pacific, including the coral reef ecosystems around Kingman Reef, Wake Island (the site of a crucial World War II battle) and other islands and atolls about 1,000 miles south and west of Hawaii. Finally, the Rose Atoll Monument protects the coral reefs around American Samoa.
The three monuments total some 196,000 square miles—larger than all of the U.S. national parks combined. The designation extends for 50 nautical miles beyond the islands and reefs, excluding the water above the rim of the Marianas Trench (which has been left open to recreational and traditional indigenous fishing with permits). In addition to the exceptional geology of the Marianas, Rose Atoll contains the highest percentage of live coral cover of any place on Earth, plus a wealth of species such as the hawksbill turtle, lemonpeel angelfish and white-tailed tropicbird. The Central Pacific area hosts some of the largest populations of apex predators in the oceans as well as numerous coral species, five times as many as are found in the Florida Keys.
“The remoteness of these places might seem to offer them protection enough, but the march of human society is steadily opening up areas long considered to be impenetrable or simply not worth the trouble,” Reichert noted in an op-ed piece applauding the creation of the three monuments. The truth is, he said, “they are worth more intact than whatever commercial benefits might be derived from fishing, drilling or mining them.”
Conservation, he pointed out, means more than providing for alternative and sustainable uses: “There is an inherent value in wild places that transcends their importance for science, education, recreation and the ecosystem services they provide—although these are reason enough to leave them be. We value them precisely because they have not been shaped by us, but reflect the natural world when left to its own devices. Thankfully, this president, and most Americans, want to see some places on Earth remain this way.”
One immediate effect is protection for an almost Seussian diversity of life. Beneficiaries include the wellknown bigeye tuna, yellowfin and marlin, all of which face threats and use these waters as a breeding ground; and millions of nesting seabirds and migratory coastal birds as well as rare species such as the endangered Micronesian Megapode, the only bird known to use the heat of underwater volcanoes, rather than body heat, to incubate its eggs, and the giant coconut crab, whose 16-inch body length, 9-pound weight and 3-foot leg span make it the most massive land arthropod in the world.
The scientific studies in these natural laboratories will have practical application. Studying how corals and other life in the regions have adapted over the millennia to the naturally harsh conditions in which they live could offer important clues into how our oceans can weather the many unnatural pressures human activity continually places on them. As Enric Sala, an oceanographer and 2006 Pew fellow in marine conservation, told National Public Radio, “These places are the last instruction manual we have to understand how coral reefs function, and also to understand the magnitude of our impact on [them].”
In the Marianas, the marine volcanic activity in the protected area mimics the acidification of the oceans that is occurring due to global climate change. The geologist Embley, in particular, specializes in what happens on the ocean floor: the impacts and consequences of underwater volcanoes; the movement of the tectonic plates; the vents, or fissures, that spew heated water; the development of sediment; and the resulting ecosystems. He and his colleagues get as close as anyone, perhaps, to the spot where life on Earth may have begun and where strange new species continue to evolve—such as a crab that eats the bacteria issuing from the sides of the erupting volcano, even while the sulfur and temperature are claiming the lives of other sea creatures that venture too close.
Pew’s efforts focused on the Marianas location. “A number of factors beyond geology and ecology led to our work there,” says Jay Nelson, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Ocean Legacy program. “The waters around the northernmost islands were relatively healthy, with little impact from fishing or other extractive activities. The site’s real value lies in scientific research and education. And a marine park would significantly benefit the commonwealth’s economy through increased tourism and government support.”
Pew commissioned the first comprehensive scientific profile of the site’s biological and geological resources as well as research on the potential economic effect of a national monument on the Marianas. Dr. Thomas J. Iverson, an economics professor at the University of Guam whose interests include sustainable economic development and the relationship of tourism to cultural preservation, calculated that a marine monument could generate up to 400 new jobs and $10 million in new spending each year, $14 million in sales and almost $5 million in tax revenues.
Pew then disseminated the findings of these studies to federal and local officials and the public, organizing more than 100 meetings and open forums, where the community used the information to inform their discussions. Ultimately, more than 200 businesses and 6,000 commonwealth residents signed petitions backing the monument designation.
Responding to the area’s new protective status, Ignacio V. Cabrera, chairman of Friends of the Monument, said: “We are proud that President Bush has recognized the importance and richness of the Mariana Islands waters. We can now share with the world this special place our people have long cherished.”
Afterward, Jay Nelson reflected on the work done by Global Ocean Legacy: “Pew’s role in creating the Marianas national monument was definitive, as President Bush acknowledged after the signing event at the White House. Critics of the idea of a marine reserve conceded as much, calling the original proposal the ‘Pew monument.’
We invested 2½ years in this important project, working with the Bush administration as well as with officials and citizens of the Marianas. We learned at the beginning that there was a keen appetite for preserving and protecting this unique ocean treasure among the indigenous Chamorro and other local residents. We were able to substantiate the need with facts; and Marianas citizens, skeptics included, used this information to raise their voices and support their own vision of the outcome. The process proved deliberative, and Pew is proud to have set it in motion with this successful result.”
The Pew Environment Group’s Reichert links the monument designations to the Pew-supported establishment of the marine reserve in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 2006 and welcomes the growing respect for the seas that they signify. He has long observed that, while the need to protect wilderness areas on land has been broadly accepted, because the consequences of human activity—clear-cutting, the building of roads, mining and other forms of development—are visible to the eye, the unremitting plunder of the seas’ resources is largely invisible to most people.
Now, underwater nature is beginning to get its due, just as scientific studies are showing the perilous situation of many marine ecosystems. “It has taken 137 years, since the creation of America’s first national park in Yellowstone in 1872, to recognize that unique areas of the world’s oceans deserve the same kind of protection as we have afforded similar places on land,” Reichert says. “And none too soon.”
Scott Ward is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer. Marshall Ledger is editor of Trust.
Pew-managed Global Ocean Legacy grew from Pew’s successful work in 2005–2006 to support the creation of a fully protected marine reserve in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Ongoing, the project is dedicated to establishing, globally, at least three to five large, world-class, no-take marine reserves over the next decade. With permanent protections, these areas will provide ocean-scale ecosystem benefits and help conserve marine heritage.
Partners supporting Global Ocean Legacy include the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, the Oak Foundation and the Robertson Foundation.
For more information and resources, go to the Internet at www.globaloceanlegacy.org, where fact sheets, news clips and other materials on the new marine national monuments can be found. To see Mariana volcanic eruptions caught on camera, go to the Global Ocean Legacy Web site.