Bush’s marine reserve move – the pros and cons

President Bush this week announced the creation of three new US marine reserves in the Pacific Ocean collectively covering an area the size of Spain.

The unprecedented move has been greeted warmly by marine scientists as it sets a precedent for nations seeking to protect vast tracts of ocean for the purposes of conservation. But as marine expert Dr Bill Ballantine points out, the sweeping provisions for the marine reserves also present “ongoing problems” for marine conservation.

News summary on the SMC website:


Leading New Zealand marine biologist and marine reserve expert Dr Bill Ballantine comments on the news:

Two cheers (but not three) for the news that on Jan 5th 2008 President George Bush, using his powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906 (which generally refers to statues and cultural sites) created three very large National Monuments in the Pacific Ocean that will severely restrict mining, drilling, and fishing. They extend 50 nautical miles round various isolated US islands and in total cover an area the size of Spain.

There are several reasons for thinking this is good news.

1. Throughout the world marine conservation and protection has lagged far behind efforts on land and this action is a major step in catch up.

2. It provides another demonstration of the fact that when the authorities wish to protect areas of the sea (no matter how large or remote), they can do so. Australia has already made major no-take marine protected areas near Macquarie Is. and off their SE coast, but many countries are still maintaining their inability to act without special legislation or voluntary agreement.

3. The scale of the Bush administration’s action in the Pacific begins to approach the scale of the problems and the opportunities. Most marine protected areas to date are very small and cover only coastal waters. These new marine areas are massive and cover open ocean as well as coastal waters.

4. It brings into prominence the simple principle that we do not need to wait for evidence of damage before we can act to protect areas of the sea.

5. It draws attention to the huge range and diversity of marine life and conditions. The official announcement refers to coral reefs, deep trenches, whales, mud volcanoes, giant coconut crabs, sharks, thermal vents, turtles, abyssal plains, seabirds, coralline seaweeds. There are many thousands of marine species and we have not even described half of them. There are hundreds of marine habitats and we have only mapped a few examples. Unless we begin to act on principle to protect these natural riches, we will not be able to keep pace with the degradation and destruction caused by our exploitive activities.

However, only two cheers, not three. The news announcement also indicates ongoing problems.

1. A White House spokesman, James Connaughton, said ‘going beyond 50 miles would not provide significant scientific benefits for conservation and that there was no scientific record demonstrating that the waters above the trench needed to be protected’; showing the conversion to conservation principles is far from complete.

2. The announcement stated that President Bush overruled recreational fishing interests and Vice President Cheney who argued that the restrictions would create a dangerous precedent; showing the protective action was by no means unanimous.

If the US could maintain this type of action in other areas- for example off Alaska and in the Caribbean; and other countries (including New Zealand) could copy its best features, the field of marine conservation would be transformed.

Dr Andrew Jeffs of Leigh Marine Laboratory comments:

“Interesting move from President Bush in his last few days in office and very similar to NZ declaring the Kermadec Islands Marine Reserve as the largest no-take marine reserve in the world.

“The remoteness of these areas already provided them with a great deal of existing environmental protection. The greatest threat to these remote marine areas is probably not extractive uses, but long term changes in the ocean environment, especially increased seawater temperature and acidity from climate change, both of which corals are sensitive to. Tackling the possible human causes of climate change has been a global issue for which President Bush has been criticised from a number of quarters.”


Dr Bill Ballantine

09 422 6111


Dr Andrew Jeffs



To speak to other experts on marine reserves contact the Science Media Centre on 04 499 5476 or smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz