12/07/2011 - Former US President George W. Bush did not garner much applause from environmentalists during his eight years in the White House, but on 15 June 2006, he gave them something to cheer about. Bush signed an order to create the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, then the world's largest ocean conservation area. Spanning about 360,000 square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean, the reserve is designed to safeguard 7,000 marine species including the rare Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and nearly two dozen other animals on the US endangered species list. It also started a race between other nations to follow suit with giant reserves of their own.
One of the forces driving the expansion of larger MPAs has been the Global Oceans Legacy programme of the Pew Environment Group in Washington DC. In the mid-2000s, Pew identified a handful of sites as suitable for mega-MPAs because they had relatively low economic value and were owned by countries that had a history of conservation and the ability to enforce protections.
The United States has established MPAs in two of these areas: the Papahānaumokuākea protected zone and one in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. In late November, Australia proposed plans for a 990,000-square-kilometre reserve in the Coral Sea off the country's northeast coast. Another of the sites highlighted by Pew was New Zealand's Kermadec Islands, where protections are currently in place for the sea floor, and conservationists would like to extend them to the entire water column.
Jay Nelson, director of the global ocean legacy programme at Pew, sees the Papahānaumokuākea MPA as the marine equivalent of Yellowstone National Park, the first big parcel of land to be set aside as a reserve. The creation of that park in 1872, he says, set off a chain reaction, prompting other countries to establish large parks of their own. “That had a similar effect to what Papahānaumokuākea has had in the oceans."
Read the full article, Ocean Conservation: Uncertain Sanctuary, on Nature's Wed site.