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New Pacific reserve a magnet -- for garbage

The marine sanctuary in the Hawaiian chain decreed by Bush in 2006 has less money for picking up debris.

August 17, 2008|Dina Cappiello | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Cleanup efforts have slowed and garbage continues to pile up in a remote chain of Pacific islands that President Bush two years ago made the biggest and most environmentally protected area of ocean in the world.

Winning rare praise from conservationists, Bush declared the 140,000-square-mile stretch of ocean including a chain of islands in northwestern Hawaii the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in June 2006.

His proclamation featured some of the strictest measures ever put in place for a marine environment, including a prohibition on any material that might injure its sensitive coral reefs and 7,000 rare species -- a fourth of them found nowhere else in the world -- even if the debris drifts in from thousands of miles away.

It hasn't happened.

Ocean currents each year still bring an estimated 57 tons of garbage and discarded fishing gear to the 10 islands and the waters surrounding them, where the refuse snares endangered monk seals, smothers coral reefs and fills the guts of albatrosses and their young with indigestible plastic.

Debris removal, meanwhile, has averaged 35 tons a year since the islands became a monument, about a third of the 102 tons of derelict fishing gear collected on average before that.

The Bush administration slashed the debris cleanup budget by 80% from the $2.1 million spent in 2005 and requested only $400,000 a year for it through 2008.

The administration now wants an extra $100,000 for removing the smorgasbord of lighters, plastic bottles, refrigerators and fishing nets that litter the marine reserve's beaches and get snagged on its pristine reefs. But the total amount it would spend in 2009 is still only 25% of what was being spent four years ago.

"It is wonderful that our nation has made a commitment, and this administration deserves a lot of credit for designating the world's largest marine reserve, but there is a responsibility that goes along with that," said Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Washington state. "Unfortunately in recent years the U.S. has not made picking up trash in our most special places in the ocean a priority."

The result has been that since Bush declared the area a protected national monument, boats and divers have been picking up far less debris than they were before the area was protected.

"We are collecting less," acknowledged Steven Thur, acting coral program director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the monument with the state of Hawaii and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Thur said the administration's budget requests were based on a faulty annual debris accumulation rate of 28 tons. New research has shown double that amount floats into the monument each year.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said that although Bush had made the area a national monument, his administration had "decided to reduce its level of commitment to removing marine debris and only address new accumulations."

"The administration is not keeping pace, and this is disappointing," Inouye said.

Inouye had concerns about the area becoming a national monument because of fishing restrictions and no public participation in the process. In 2006 he pushed a bill through Congress authorizing up to $15 million each year to tackle marine debris nationwide.

Despite that law and an initiative announced in November 2007 by First Lady Laura Bush, Congress last year added only $352,000 to the $400,000 requested by the president for cleaning up Papahanaumokuakea.

The combination of currents, the reserve's remote location and a plethora of endangered species make marine debris in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands arguably the worst ocean trash problem in the world. Circular gyre currents funnel plastic, lighters and fishing nets from all over the Pacific Ocean to the islands as if they were a drain in a gigantic sink.

Garbage collection began on a haphazard basis in 1996. It wasn't until 2002 that the federal government got involved and began dedicating significant resources to the collection of marine debris in the sanctuary. To date, more than $12 million has been spent and 646 tons of marine debris have been removed. The haul is either recycled or burned for energy.

Many who had fought to get the islands protected thought making the area a monument would accelerate marine debris pickup. Instead, after an expensive and aggressive sweep from 2002 to 2005, the Bush administration decided to downshift to a maintenance level.

"It is very disappointing. Here you have this designation as a monument, and there has been less visible activity going on in the monument," said Christine Woolaway, an independent environmental consultant who coordinates the Ocean Conservancy's "Get the Drift and Bag It" international coastal cleanup program. "There is a need to expand the effort."

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