In one of his final acts as president, George W. Bush surprised the world with an unexpected green streak. Last week he announced he will turn huge tracts of the Pacific Ocean into protected conservation areas by designating them as national monuments. When you include earlier such declarations, Bush will have protected more of the world’s oceans than any other person in history.
The newly protected areas span a total of more than 500,000 sq. km in three separate regions. They include the coral reefs of Rose Atoll near American Samoa, an isolated archipelago southwest of Hawaii called the Line Islands, and the Mariana Trench near Guam, which is the deepest submerged canyon in the world. The regions are home to an impressive variety of wildlife, including sharks, rare whales, birds and giant clams. “For marine life and seabirds, these places will be sanctuaries to grow and thrive,” Bush’s administration wrote in a release.
Commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration won’t be allowed in the reserves, says Barb Maxfield of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Hawaii. Because of that, the areas could improve the overall quality of the ocean by acting as nurseries, helping marine species to reproduce. Beth Hunter, coordinator of oceans campaigns for Greenpeace Canada, says that over time this will benefit commercial fishing in nearby regions by allowing fish in the area to flourish.
Green organizations such as the Pew Environmental Group are thrilled, but Hunter says Greenpeace hasn’t forgotten Bush’s history of environmental neglect. “It’s an excellent initiative to protect oceans—by a person who has done an amazing amount not to protect the planet,” she says. “The deadline of him leaving office probably made it all come together.”