Bush administration considering two massive Pacific marine reserves

One of the many big political surprises in the US yesterday was news that the Bush administration was considering implementing two or more massive marine reserves in US territories in the Pacific.  The move  would protect some of the regions most remote coral reefs.  What isn’t so surprising is that, according to the Washington Post, über vice president Dick Cheney is trying to scale back or block Bush’s plans (doesn’t the former work for the latter?).

Read the whole story in the Washington Post here.

President Bush’s vision for protecting two vast areas of the Pacific Ocean from fishing and mineral exploitation, a move that would constitute a major expansion of his environmental legacy, is running into dogged resistance both inside and outside the White House and has placed his wife and his vice president on opposite sides of the issue.

In 2006 he designated the nearly 140,000-square-mile Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, creating what at the time was the world’s largest protected marine area. Scientists have advocated designating more such areas to protect them from the effects of overfishing, pollution and global warming, which are degrading oceans worldwide.

“There’s pretty strong evidence that everyone will benefit from the establishment of no-take reserves,” said Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University, adding that fish populations rebound both within the protected reserves and in nearby fishing grounds. “The administration made a major step forward in designating the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument, but that one alone is not enough to protect the full range of places and habitats and species that need to be protected. It will be part of [Bush’s] legacy, but his ocean and environmental legacy could be much, much more.”

One of the two marine reserves, or “marine conservation management areas”, includes a wide swath of the central Pacific ocean and some of the world’s most remote and pristine coral reefs, such as Kingman Atoll in the Line Islands.

Sadly, the article also highlights how close we came to having some similar reserves implemented closer to the continental US:

Bush initially explored the idea of establishing other protected areas closer to U.S. shores, including one off the southeastern coast near a group of deep-sea corals and another in the Gulf of Mexico. After commercial and recreational fishing interests and oil companies objected, the administration decided to pursue existing resource-management plans in those areas instead.

Political analysts interpret these moves as an attempt by Bush to build some sort of legacy before leaving office in early 2009.  We should know later in the year whether any of his planned reserves are indeed implemented.  And if they aren’t, I suspect the next president will be even more amenable to such logical solutions to some of our major environmental crises.

“Protecting places like this is one of the few things a sitting president can do that will live on in posterity and be remembered long after the other decrees and orders have been forgotten,”  said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environmental Group.  “It would signal to the nation and the world that the sea needs to be treated as a threatened resource, and it will open up an era of global ocean conservation.”

Claudia McMurray, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science, said the administration will be “working up until the last week” of Bush’s term on the initiatives.  “While it would take a significant amount of work, we haven’t ruled it out,” she said. “We feel fairly confident, scientifically, there are so many unique species in that area, from that standpoint, we think it’s important to wall off as much as we can.”

MPAs and climate change II: study finds no-take reserves do not increase reef resilience

PI Nick Graham surveying a high coral cover reef.

PI Nick Graham surveying a high coral cover reef.

Some coral reefs scientists have argued (and prayed) that marine reserves (no-take MPAs) could limit the impacts of climate change on populations of reef-building corals.  The idea is that by maintaining healthy food webs and herbivore populations, reef managers can prevent seaweed blooms that can kill juvenile corals.  Restricting fishing would thus increase reef resilience (which ecologists define as the return rate of an ecological system to its baseline state following a disturbance).  Unfortunately, a new study tempers such wishful thinking.

The study (Graham et al. 2008 published on August 27 in the open access journal PloS One) indicates that marine reserves have no effect on coral resilience to ocean warming.

Approximately 45% of coral cover in the Indian Ocean was lost in 1998 due to temperature-related coral bleaching.  To compare coral loss within and outside of reserves, the team resurveyed 66 reefs in the Indian Ocean that had originally been surveyed before the 1998 mass bleaching event.  The surveyed sites included reefs within nine reserves in four countries.

The results indicated that “A greater proportion of [marine reserves] (71%) than fished (42%) locations showed significant declines in coral cover over the study period. There was no evidence to suggest the percent change in coral cover differed between [marine reserves] and fished areas, and in some cases declines were significantly greater in [marine reserves]”

This is an important study in coral reef ecology.  As a believer in Macroecology and a long-time disciple of James Brown (the desert ecologist, not the King of Funk) I think such a regional-scale, carefully implemented approach could be used to answer many other key questions in reef ecology.  Having read hundreds of monitoring studies while building a database of >10,000 reef surveys, I can attest that there are few targeted macroecological reef studies of this scope.  There are some monitoring programs this large.  But few studies of this scale are designed and implemented to answer a specific question.  Although the macroecological approach is rarely employed (due to obvious financial and logistical constraints), it certainly isn’t new.  Terry Hughes (Hughes 1994 Science) applied it by resurveying nine reefs on the north coast of Jamaica after a variety of disturbances wiped out corals and enabled macroalgae to become the dominant benthic organism.  Even earlier, Endean and Stablum surveyed dozens of reefs across the GBR in the late 1960s and early 1970s to assess the impact of and recovery from a regional crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak.

I imagine critics of Graham et al. 2008 and it’s implications could argue that many or most tropical marine reserves are not well-managed and that they might increase resilience if enforced.  This would be a fair point, but given the political and socio-economic realities of the region, poaching might be difficult or impossible to eliminate.  So to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we might just have to conserve reefs with the marine reserves we have, not the marine reserves we want.

Change in coral cover at sites across the western Indian Ocean

Change in coral cover at sites across the western Indian Ocean. Green and red symbols represent increases and decreases in coral cover respectively. Symbols with solid borders are sites in marine reserves. Data represent 66 sites across the region. Numbers in key (size of bubble) are percent changes between mid 1990s and 2005.