From the Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Marine monument languishes
The chain of islands in northwestern Hawaii has seen funding drop and debris accumulate
WASHINGTON » Cleanup efforts have slowed and garbage continues to pile up in a remote chain of Pacific islands that President Bush made the biggest and most environmentally protected area of ocean in the world two years ago.
Winning rare praise from conservationists, Bush declared the 140,000-square-mile chain of islands in northwestern Hawaii the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in June 2006.
His proclamation featured some of the strictest measures ever placed on 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 still bring an estimated 57 tons of garbage and discarded fishing gear each year to the 10 islands and 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 percent from the $2.1 million spent in 2005 and requested only $400,000 a year for it through 2008.
Bush now wants an extra $100,000 for removing the lighters, plastic bottles, refrigerators and fishing nets that litter its beaches and get snagged on its pristine reefs. But the amount he would spend in 2009 is still only 25 percent 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 removing before the area was protected.
"We are collecting less," acknowledged Steve Thur, acting coral program director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the monument with the state of Hawaii and Fish and Wildlife Service.
Thur said Bush'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.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said that while Bush was making 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 last November by first lady Laura Bush, Congress added only $352,000 last year to the $400,000 requested by the president for cleaning up Papahanaumokuakea.
The combination of currents, its 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 was not 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 has been removed. The haul is either recycled or burned for energy.
Many who had fought to get the islands protected thought making it a monument would accelerate marine debris pickup. Instead, after an expensive and aggressive sweep in 2002-2005, the Bush administration decided to downshift into 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 Chris 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."