January 15, 2009

Bush's Blue Legacy Remains Murky

President Bush’s designation of 195,000 square miles of marine monuments last week drew praise from a wide constituency—including many environmentalists, who have so often been at odds with the Bush Administration over the past eight years.  Without a doubt, President Bush’s use of the Antiquities Act to preserve the Marianas, Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll National Marine Monuments is a major victory for conservation, especially when considered in addition to his similar designation of the 140,000 square mile Papahanaumokuakea (Northern Hawaiian Islands) Marine Monument in 2006. 

When news of the Northern Hawaiian Islands designation broke, the LA Times reported that a private screening of a PBS documentary about the beauty of (and threats to) that archipelago of islands seemed to capture President Bush’s imagination.  To his credit, he followed through and acted to protect not only those areas but also others encompassed by last week’s designations.  Truly effective protection of the marine environment, however, requires day-to-day vigilance on matters that are less glamorous, and more politically difficult.  On many such matters, the Bush Administration has fallen far short of the “blue” legacy the outgoing President seems interested in securing.

Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environmental Group, noted to reporters that President Bush’s marine monument designations are “on par with what we have been able to accomplish on land in the last 100 years.”  Indeed, taken together, the National Park System (which began with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872) and the National Wildlife Refuge System (created with the designation of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in 1903) protect a combined total of 180 million acres, or just over 281,000 square miles.  Some environmentalists point out that the substantive protections afforded the marine monuments fall short, failing, for example, to protect the full area over which the United States has jurisdiction.  (See NRDC’s blog post by Senior Attorney and Ocean Initiative Director Sarah Chasis for more, here.)  But from the perspective of sheer area protected, President Bush’s designation of 335,000 square miles of marine monuments in under three years is incontrovertibly impressive. 

The analogy to land protection, however, goes beyond a numbers comparison.  The early preservation movement, integral to the creation of our national parks, refuges and wilderness areas, evolved from an exclusive focus on the need for humans to set aside pristine, protected areas for wildlife and nature to recognize and act on the need to incorporate protective measures in our daily interactions with the natural world.  So, for example, in the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring spurred realization of the fact that application of the pesticide DDT was driving certain birds to the very edge of extinction.  Refuges such as Pelican Island could not protect them, instead we needed to impose severe restrictions on the use of certain pesticides (including a ban on the use of DDT). 

Everyday actions of humans, geographically removed from the recently-designated marine monuments, have similarly dire consequences on marine life.  Two examples illustrate the Bush Administration’s failure to provide true marine protection.    

In December, the Government Accountability Office, in response to a request from House Natural Resources Committee Chair Nick Rahall, issued a series of recommendations for improving the work of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  Among other things, the report found that NMFS had failed to take statutorily required measures to prevent marine mammals from ending up as “bycatch” of commercial fishing operations.  In this context “bycatch” (also referred to as “incidental take”) refers to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals injured or killed by fishing gear not intended for them.  The 1994 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) directed NMFS to establish “take reduction teams” to develop measures to reduce the incidental takes of certain mammals.  NMFS has failed to do so for 14 out of the 30 marine mammal stocks that meet the MMPA’s requirements for establishing take reduction teams.  For those teams that have been established, NMFS has often missed statutory deadlines for establishing teams, developing take reduction plans, and publishing proposed and final plans and the regulations needed to implement them. 

One of the reasons provided to the GAO by NMFS for its failure to establish take reduction teams for certain marine mammals is rooted in another of the Bush Administration’s failures to protect marine resources.  Causes other than fishery-related incidental take–such as sonar used by the U.S. Navy–may contribute to their injury or death, NFMS explained, so changes to fishing practices wouldn’t solve the problem.  The U.S. Navy’s use of midfrequency active sonar in submarine detection training exercises has been scientifically linked to strandings, ear injuries and behavioral changes in whales and other marine mammals. 

The Administration exempted its training exercises from protections that would otherwise have applied under the MMPA and the Coastal Zone Management Act.  Ultimately, it took a court order in response to a lawsuit by NRDC to get the Navy to adopt measures that would attempt to mitigate the harm its sonar exercises cause to marine mammals.  (Two of the conditions imposed by a lower court were successfully challenged by the Administration before the United States Supreme Court—for more on the ruling, see CPR Member Scholar Holly Doremus’s commentary in Slate, here.)  Scientists remain concerned, however, that even with mitigation efforts, sonar affects more whales than we are currently aware of, and they warn that the Navy may eventually have to reconsider the use of certain types of sonar altogether, as its exercises could be “wiping out entire populations of whales and seriously depleting others.” 

Developing measures that commercial fisheries must take to reduce bycatch of marine mammals and proactively developing mitigation measures or even foregoing the use of certain types of sonar in military training exercises would be a significant stride toward reducing the human impact on marine resources in our day-to-day interactions with them.  Yet the Bush Administration opted for inaction on both these fronts.  How does that square with the President’s asserted commitment to marine protection?  A cynic would say that one major difference is the political opposition to the former measures, and the relative lack of political opposition to the latter.  (The Northern Hawaiian Islands, for example, lacked resident fishermen who might have been hurt by the protections afforded the area by the 2006 monument designation). 

Maybe the reason is more subtle—that measures such as these fail to capture the imagination in the way setting aside remote, pristine marine areas does.  Indeed, given the story about the President’s interested being stirred by a PBS documentary, it may very well be his imagination that needed stirring.  While inspiring and undoubtedly an important part of a successful conservation strategy, however, setting aside remote areas is the “low-hanging fruit” of marine resource protection.  It’s the more mundane, seemingly bureaucratic, and politically difficult measures that must be tackled to ensure that the United States is truly a “blue” leader among the world’s nations.  The Obama Administration can and should build upon President Bush’s initial efforts at securing this legacy by rolling up its sleeves and working to tackle these and other issues affecting the marine environment.

Margaret Clune Giblin, Policy Analyst, Center for Progressive Reform. Bio.

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