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President Bush Declares National Monument in Hawaii

June 15, 2006 at 8:58 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a spectacular piece of this country, remote, uninhabited by humans, but home to thousands of species of marine life. The endangered monk seal lives here, as do rare birds, and colorful fish stay close to the largest coral reef system in the United States.

These are the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a chain of atolls, reefs and shoals stretching more than 1,200 miles. Today’s move by the president to make the area a national monument will end commercial fishing there and afford it other environmental protections.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The vibrant beauty of the oceans is a blessing to our country, and it’s a blessing to the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new marine reserve is 140,000 square miles, about the size of Montana, and will now be the world’s largest protected marine area. The president moved quickly to give the islands national monument status after he and Mrs. Bush were given a White House screening of this documentary, made by Jean-Michel Cousteau. The film aired on PBS in April.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU, Filmmaker: Look at this! Look at this!

JEFFREY BROWN: The designation drew praise from environmentalists, who’ve often been at odds with the Bush administration. Some opposition to the plan had come from fishing interests, but a coalition of environmental groups is planning to offer some financial relief to those who would lose their fishing permits.

The area is well protected

Jean-Michel Cousteau
It's in the middle of the Pacific. It's 1,200 miles long of islands, sea mounts, coral reefs, which are virtually unexplored, which are virtually unknown, where there are hundreds of species, which we probably will discover in the next decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ocean explorer and filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau was at the White House ceremony this afternoon and is with us now. We're also joined by Joshua Reichert, head of environmental programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts. He's been working on this project for some eight years.

Welcome to both of you.

JEAN-MICHAEL COUSTEAU: Thank you very much.

JOSHUA REICHERT, Head of Environmental Programs, Pew Charitable Trusts: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Cousteau, you were there in this region for some six weeks, I understand, making the film. Help us understand what makes it such a special place.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: It's in the middle of the Pacific. It's 1,200 miles long of islands, sea mounts, coral reefs, which are virtually unexplored, which are virtually unknown, where there are hundreds of species, which we probably will discover in the next decades.

And it is still in very, very good shape. It's away from all the impact that we have, other than the debris that floats and ultimate reaches those places.

We have no other place on the planet that are so well-protected, because of the distance from the impact of populations. So the fact that now we have this place protected is unique, not just for the United States, but for the world and for future generations.

JEFFREY BROWN: But given that, Joshua Reichert, what does it need protecting from? What is the reason for this?

JOSHUA REICHERT: Well, let me just add to what Jean-Michel just said, that's it's -- 70 percent of the shallow water tropical coral reefs in all of U.S. water are in that one place. It's got a population of 14 million sea birds that make their home there for at least a part of the year.

And it's got 7,000 species of marine and terrestrial life that 25 or 30 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth. So it really is just a biological jewel.

There are various issues, but one of them is fishing. And there are a relatively small number of fishing vessels that permitted to fish out there. At the moment, there are only eight. But, in a system that's fragile, that's particularly fragile as this one, eight fishing vessels actually can do a lot of damage.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even only eight, but that does a lot of damage there that is discernible?

JOSHUA REICHERT: To give you an example from that place, between 1977 and 1998, a period of about 21 years, an average of eight lobster boats a year took approximately 12 million lobsters out of the system. As a result, the lobster population completely collapsed.

In the late 1990s, it was closed by a federal court in the year 2000. And the loss of those lobsters has also an impact on the Hawaiian monk seal, which is the only surviving marine mammal on Earth that's completely dependent on coral reefs. Young seals eat lobsters, and the seal population has had problems for a number of years now, in part because of this.

It is a monument

Joshua Reichert
Pew Charitable Trusts
Only an act of Congress can undue a monument designation. And [the president] obviously made a decision today to take a bold step and create something which is going to be immediate, that the law applies immediately to this place now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what does the national monument designation mean? I mean, what will this do for the area? What's allowed, and what's not allowed?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Well, what it means is that the land, as well as the ocean, 140,000 square miles is now a national monument, is protected.

What it means is that the Department of Interior and the Department of Commerce, that Fish and Wildlife and NOAA are going to have to work together.

And it was implied, but now it's official. One has to realize how we depend on the ocean for the quality of our lives on land, and so it's all connected. It's not, you know, the fish here, and the boats there. It's the fish and the boats are connected.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you referred to research earlier. Research would go on? What else goes on?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Yes, it will still go on. No fishing, I believe, except for subsistent fishing for the local people, the people who live there. There will be places were nobody will be allowed to go, except for scientists and research.

On the other hand, there will be a complete protection for cultural reasons of the islands which are so important to the Hawaiians and so important to the Polynesians; in general, for them that is kind of a Mecca.

And then they, to me, was very important that Midway be highlighted, because it's a place which played a very important role for the freedom of this country during the Second World War. And I believe that that destination will be open to the public.

So they'll be able to live some of the history and see some of that environment which is so important and that will be protected for future generations.

You know, I have seen, to go along the way of the monk seal situation, I grew up in south of France. I used to go to Corsica with my family when I was a kid, where monk sales there. I was diving with monk seals when I was 13, 15, all the time. They're gone; there is not one left.

We can, we have a chance, to not see that happen in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

JEFFREY BROWN: You want to add to that?

JOSHUA REICHERT: Yes, one of the kind of simple differences between a sanctuary and a monument, which is -- the president this afternoon designated this area as a monument. Monument status is quicker; it's more comprehensive; and it's more permanent.

Only an act of Congress can undue a monument designation. The sanctuary process, it takes longer; it involves more congressional input, more public debate, more hearings and meetings. And he obviously made a decision today to, actually, take a bold step and create something which is going to be immediate, that the law applies immediately to this place now.

"A landmark conservation event"

Joshua Reichert
Pew Charitable Trusts
Fishing would be phased out over a period of five years. I think we and a lot of other people think it would be far better if fishing could end sooner rather than later.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's notable that environmental groups have not often seen eye-to-eye with this president. Today, you did. Today was an exception.

JOSHUA REICHERT: That's true. Today, we put aside these differences and we come together to celebrate what is really a remarkable accomplishment. From both a national and international perspective, this is a landmark conservation event.

JEFFREY BROWN: I suppose when people hear the idea of a monument, some of us would think, is it something we could go see? Now, few people have seen this place. Does this mean even fewer are likely to ever see it?

JOSHUA REICHERT: Well, as Jean-Michel indicated, this place is remote. It starts about 160 miles to the northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai and extends out 1,200 miles into the Pacific. So it's hard to get to.

And, actually for tourism, other than people who dive or snorkel, there's not necessarily a lot to see above land. A lot of this area, the spectacular part of this area is below the water.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the -- we mentioned the fishermen and the potential plan to compensate them. You're involved with that, I think. How would that work?

JOSHUA REICHERT: Well, the way it would work is, if an arrangement could be made and a price agreed upon that was reasonable, then if all of the eight remaining fishermen agreed to participate, then they would be compensated, essentially, to surrender their permits to the federal government that would permanently retire them. And at that point, fishing would end in this place.

But under the management plan that's been proposed for the monument, fishing would be phased out over a period of five years. I think we and a lot of other people think it would be far better if fishing could end sooner rather than later.

"We're doing justice to the ocean"

Jean-Michel Cousteau
We'll never go to Mars if we don't take care of home base, and home base is our little planet Earth. And we have to take care of our oceans, which cover 70 percent of the planet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Cousteau, finally, there was a line in your film where you said, "We're doing justice to the ocean." Very strong, interesting line. What do you mean by that? How is that relevant to what's happening here today?

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Well, essentially, because we land-based animals, we have completely neglected the ocean and the importance of it for the quality of our lives. We know more about the Dead Sea on Mars than we know our own backyard.

I'm a fanatic of space exploration. We'll never go to Mars if we don't take care of home base, and home base is our little planet Earth. And we have to take care of our oceans, which cover 70 percent of the planet, and what lives in it, which makes us smile in the morning when you wake up.

Whether you live along the coastline or you live on top of a mountain, the ocean is on top of your mountain, as well. We're all connected through the water system.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Reichert, what would you add to that?

JOSHUA REICHERT: Well, there's both a symbolic and a substantive significance to this. For many years, we in this country and people around the world have appreciated and understood the importance of setting aside special places on the land because they're either biologically rich, that they're unique in one way or another. That's why we have a whole history of national parks in this country.

And now we're beginning to realize that we need to do the same thing for the sea. And this is one of those terrific examples in the world of setting aside a spectacular place and preserving it, hopefully, for future generations and for all posterity, and it becomes part of the great natural legacy of the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jean-Michel Cousteau, Joshua Reichert, thank you both very much.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Thank you.

JOSHUA REICHERT: Thank you very much.