Image: Coral reef fish
Fish And Wildlife Service
These coral fish were spotted along the Johnston Atoll within the Central Pacific Islands. The region could become the largest protected area in the world.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/25/2008 7:45:18 PM ET 2008-08-25T23:45:18

President Bush on Monday said he was considering creating two protected areas in the Pacific Ocean, including one that would be the world's largest — four-and-a-half-times larger than all the national parks and nearly the size of Alaska.

The largest area would be around the Central Pacific Islands — eight islands and coral reef atolls and their surrounding waters that are part of the Line Islands and American Samoa.

A second area that could get protection covers parts of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific — an area that includes the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of Earth's oceans.

Both areas are now in U.S. territorial waters and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The president is on the cusp of conserving more territory than any leader has ever done.  That’s an amazing legacy to leave the nation," Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

Bush signaled his intentions in a memo to members of his Cabinet and is now awaiting their advice on how to provide additional protection to the island chains. The archipelagos are home to a diverse array of fish, birds and other marine species that are rapidly vanishing elsewhere in the world, the memo said.

"These areas are host to some of the world's most biodiverse coral reefs and habitat, and some of the most interesting and compelling geological formations in all of our oceans," White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is on vacation at his ranch.

'Nearly pristine' conditions
The Environmental Defense Fund agreed and said it expected the president to create national marine monuments. "Many areas in the proposed Central Pacific Islands monument remain in a nearly pristine state," it stated, contrasting that with the fact that coral reefs elsewhere in the Pacific are disappearing twice as fast as tropical rain forests.

"A recent study of Kingman Reef, part of the proposed monument, found a picture-perfect healthy coral ecosystem that contained more fish than any other coral reef ecosystem in the world," it added. "The study also found that the area contains the world's greatest proportion of top predators (including sharks), a key indicator of ecosystem health. Healthy reefs like those of the Central Pacific are also more resilient to changing climate.

The president has a range of ways to order environmental protection, with varying restrictions on development and fishing. In his memo, Bush did not indicate what type of protection would be offered for the marine habitats under consideration.

Bush also made clear that he would protect the rights of the Department of Defense, which has active bases on two of the islands.

The conservation effort could be completed before Bush leaves office.

Would mining, drilling be allowed?
Environmentalists said they hoped the president would bar any commercial fishing, mining or drilling in the areas.

"Monument or sanctuary designation by itself does not necessarily convey a high degree of protection, and could allow a host of activities including commercial and recreational fishing, and deep sea mining, among others," Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, said in a statement. "However, if the president establishes these new sites as no take reserves, where no extractive activity is allowed, it would be one of the most significant environmental achievements of any U.S. president."

The action follows Bush's creation in June 2006 of a marine monument protecting the Northwestern Islands off Hawaii. That monument is currently the largest conservation area in the world.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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