In a newly released scientific report, backers of a proposal to designate a 115,000 square mile section of ocean in the CNMI's northern waters as a national marine monument say the region, a “hotspot” for biodiversity, is increasingly under threat from human activity and ecological changes.
President Bush in a memo issued earlier this week called on federal agencies to conduct an assessment of the region-the waters surrounding the islands of Maug, Uracus and Asuncion-to determine whether it is a suitable site for establishing a monument, a move that would give it federal protection.
Safeguarding these waters is critical due to the diversity of the species found there and the potential harm they face from human encroachment on the nearby islands, poaching and the cumulative impact of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a report issued this week by the Pew Charitable Trust.
“The remoteness of the northern islands will not protect them,” Dr. Rusty Brainard, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says in the report. “By boat, they are only a day away from Saipan. It would be easy to significantly exploit them.”
The proposed monument has proven controversial in the CNMI, with opponents saying the plan would intrude on local autonomy and block any future fishing and mining efforts around the northern islands.
The Pew trust's report, however, highlights several ecological threats to those waters that it argues boost the case for preserving them. Key among them is the impact of human encroachment, including the population boom expected by the pending military buildup on Guam.
“The proposed monument takes on even greater importance as populations, construction projects and associated impacts in the southern part of the archipelago increase,” the report says. “Since Guam is a major transportation hub in the Pacific, increased boat and air traffic associated with the troop relocation pose a worrisome threat to wildlife throughout the CNMI.”
Protecting the waters around the Pacific's uninhabited islands-like those that would be encompassed by the monument -- is also critical because poachers and fishermen target those regions, the report says, often taking a toll on the local environment.
In addition, ocean acidification-changes in the Ph level of ocean water due to the absorption of carbon dioxide that can make it more acidic-poses a significant threat to ocean corals and other aquatic life due to anthropogenic pollution, the report says. Yet the proposed monument could serve as a refuge from this threat if they are preserved, the report notes.
“f you want to look for an area of the ocean where you might see a refuge for corals due to the acidification problem that we anticipate through the next century, the area proposed for a monument might be a good spot,” James Barry, a senior scientists with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, says in the report, adding the issue is closely linked to climate change and rising sea levels.
Yet a major impetus for preserving the monument's water, the report says, remains the region's overwhelming biodiversity. For example, the report notes that a Navy survey conducted in 2007 found 19 species of whales and dolphins in the Marianas, including some of the world's rarest species of beaked whales. The region also has the greatest diversity of seamount and hydrothermal vent life yet seen on planet earth, the report says, and its islands are the last remaining refuge for the endangered Marianas fruit bat.
Meanwhile, opponents of the monument proposal are calling it an “arbitrary” and “political” endeavor that ignores the concerns of local stakeholders.
The process of designating the CNMI's waters as a monument is a “unilateral, arbitrary presidential action that eschews weighing stakeholder concerns in a fair manner,” according to a statement issued this week by CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife Director Sylvan Igisomar. “Furthermore, designation is a permanent action that is unlikely to be reversed by a subsequent U.S. Congress, even if the monument is later discovered to be ill- designed and non-functional.”
Igisomar and John Joyner, director of the Coastal Resources Management Office, will debate staff with the Pew Trust at the Saipan Chamber of Commerce's general membership meeting Wednesday at the Saipan Grand Hotel.