Bush’s weak spot for Hawaiian fish

The North County Times Editorial of June 16, 2006.

Bush hooks a keeper off Hawaii

Our view: Out of the blue, creation of marine sanctuary inspires hope for other ocean protections

From North County, the tiny islands, atolls and outcroppings northwest of the main Hawaiian islands can seem a world away. Like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, few of us will ever see this vast trove of the United States’ natural treasury.

A sea turtle swims in the ocean off Kauai, May 2003. Photo by Denis Devine

A sea turtle swims in the ocean off Kauai, May 2003. Photo by Denis Devine

But thanks to President Bush’s bold and remarkable announcement Thursday, the lucky few of us able to explore that remote archipelago may some day encounter it with its abundant marine resources intact.

For once, Bush put his expansive vision of the executive branch’s power to noble purpose. With a stroke of his presidential pen, Bush has created a new national monument that protects 140,000 square miles of largely uninhabited islands, atolls, coral reefs and underwater habitats.

The diversity of sea life that swims, crawls, slithers and swoops around this 1,400-mile-long and 100-mile-wide stretch of the Pacific Ocean is staggering. Just as numerous are the threats to the wildlife even around those remote reefs. With longline fishing gear slaughtering fish long after they are cut loose by feckless fishermen, the marine resources swimming around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands need all the help they can get.

Bush credited a documentary filmed by Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary ocean explorer Jaques, for inspiring him to act. Employing the National Antiquities Act for only the second time in his presidency, Bush fast-tracked the effort to phase out the few commercial fishing boats plying those remote —- and thus not so profitable —- waters.

Anyone watching President Bush’s five-year rollback of environmental regulations on the mainland has to be stunned by Thursday’s announcement. Perhaps the businesses at the very western edge of the U.S. territories are just too far away from Washington to wield the clout carried by so many other corporate interests. Whatever his motivations, Bush’s bold stroke is both compassionate and conservative at its core.

But if Bush is interested in preserving our marine resources, he shouldn’t stop there.

In February, the leaders of two expert commissions that spent years studying the status of U.S. ocean policies gave Bush a “D-plus” in implementing even those recommendations offered by the panel he appointed. The Ocean Action Plan that Bush published in December 2004 has been largely left adrift, with the only real progress coming on new initiatives to gather data. Better science is always welcome —- except when it’s used as a stalling tactic to allow exploitive industries to get theirs while they can.

Up for reauthorization is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the nation’s framework for regulating fishing in U.S. waters. Bush backs a market-based approach to managing and restoring fish populations, but that can only work if scientists and others equally interested in conservation are given standing similar to the fishing industry representatives who dominate regional fishery councils. The bills circulating in both Senate and House have good and bad provisions, but if Bush wants to burnish his ocean-protection credentials, he can engineer a compromise that takes the best of both.

Bush also wants to introduce fish farms to U.S. ocean waters, but his proposals don’t yet require enough protection from pollution for sensitive coastal habitats. The first such aquaculture project proposed for the West Coast comes from the Carlsbad-based Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, which wants to use an oil platform off Ventura to grow bass, tuna, abalone and other high-value species.

Finally, Bush’s backing of a renewed effort in the House to open up offshore waters to oil drilling also threatens the U.S. coastal waters. While the latest proposal would allow states like California to block offshore drilling, it would also hold out bribes —- in the form of federal-state revenue sharing —- to states interested in opening up their shores to new oil platforms.

To expect such environmentally sound efforts from this White House is to ignore five years of evidence to the contrary. But that’s what makes Thursday’s creation of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument all the more remarkable. It enables us to dream of a blue ocean filled with fish for our grandchildren to marvel at, eat and protect for their own grandchildren.

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