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Monday, April 21, 2014

CEQ chief: Monument could aid reefs worldwide

White House CEQ Chief James Connaughton tells members of Saipan’s Rotary Club Tuesday that the Bush administration’s proposal to create a national marine monument in the CNMI could lead to major scientific discoveries. (Stefan Sebastian) A marine monument in the ocean waters around the CNMI’s northern islands could present a vital opportunity for governments worldwide to learn how to manage coral reefs better in the future and yield major scientific discoveries, White House Council on Environmental Quality director James Connaughton told members of Saipan’s Rotary Club Tuesday afternoon.

The region proposed for the monument—a vast swath of water around the islands of Maug, Uracus and Asuncion—is a hotbed of geological activity that is found nowhere else on Earth, Connaughton said, home to a diverse array of aquatic species, and holds the potential to serve as the staging ground for a new era of undersea exploration.

As scientists study the pristine coral reefs around the islands, he added, what they are finding is changing how they evaluate reefs throughout the world and has led some to believe previous findings may “have been wrong.”

The reefs in the waters at issue, he said, “don’t look like coral reef ecosystems anywhere else on Earth” and as scientists learn more about them, the research could give governments the data they need to make “smarter management decisions.”

Recent technological advancements, meanwhile, are beginning to give scientists a far greater ability to explore the world beneath the waves of the proposed monument’s waters. The scientific community is now “on the brink of a major new wave of ocean exploration,’ Connaughton said. “Wouldn’t it be great if that could happen here?”

Moreover, the marine species living in the acidic environment near the region’s undersea thermal vents are unique in such a way that they could offer scientists “the first and best opportunity to understand the origins of life,” he said.

Connaughton also addressed a list of key concerns members of the community have raised about the monument proposal. On fears that the process of deciding whether to establish the monument is moving too fast in light of President Bush’s rapidly approaching departure from the White House—which many opponents of the plan have suggested—Connaughton said that by declaring a monument, the president would merely begin a lengthy process of determining how to manage it in cooperation with the local government.

“The president doesn’t decide all the management issues,” he said, noting that the plan gives federal authorities the power to “act quickly but proceed deliberately.”

Connaughton also sought to dispel concerns that the monument would bar access to the waters for local people and limit indigenous cultural practices there. Later this week, Connaughton plans to hold a second meeting with Gov. Benigno Fitial; the two met privately on Monday.

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