WASHINGTON — Two years ago with fanfare, President Bush declared a remote chain of Hawaiian islands the biggest, most environmentally protected area of ocean in the world.
It hasn't worked out that way.
Cleanup efforts have slowed, garbage is still piling up and Bush has cut his budget request by 80 percent.
Winning rare praise from conservationists, the president declared the 140,000-square-mile chain in northwestern Hawaii the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in June 2006. That's pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah.
His proclamation featured some of the strictest measures ever placed on a marine environment. Any material that might injure the area's sensitive coral reefs and 7,000 rare species _ a fourth of them found nowhere else in the world _ would be prohibited, even if the debris drifted in from thousands of miles away.
Many who had fought to get the islands protected thought making the area a monument would accelerate debris pickup. Instead, after an expensive and aggressive sweep in 2002-2005, the administration decided to downshift to 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."
Ocean currents are still bringing an estimated 57 tons of garbage and discarded fishing gear to the 10 islands and the waters surrounding them each year. Endangered monk seals are still being snared and coral reefs smothered by discarded fishing nets. Albatrosses are still feeding on indigestible plastic and feeding it to their young.
Debris removal, meanwhile, has fallen to 35 tons a year since the islands became a monument, about a third of the 102 tons that boats and divers collected on average before that, including junk that was already there.
And the Bush administration slashed the debris cleanup budget from the $2.1 million spent in 2005, requesting only $400,000 a year through 2008.
Bush now wants an extra $100,000 for removing the smorgasbord of lighters, plastic bottles, refrigerators and fishing nets that litter the islands' beaches and get snagged on its reefs. But the total amount he would spend in 2009 is still only about 25 percent of what was being spent four years earlier. Congress last year added $352,000 to the $400,000 requested by the president for cleaning up Papahanaumokuakea.
"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."
"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 the administration's budget requests were based on a faulty annual debris accumulation estimate of 28 tons. New research has shown double that amount floats into the monument each year.
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," the senator said.
Inouye had had concerns about the area becoming a 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.
But that law and a separate initiative announced last November by first lady Laura Bush have not stemmed the trash tide.
The combination of currents, 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 currents funnel trash 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 wasn't until 2002 that the federal government got involved and began dedicating significant resources to the cleanup of debris in the area. To date, more than $12 million has been spent and 646 tons of marine debris have been removed.
Most of the work is done in the water, where specially trained divers carefully collect fishing nets and other junk tangled on the shallow reefs, raise it to the surface with lift bags and haul it to shore by boat. The nets are burned for energy, the plastic is recycled.
A NOAA ship with a crew of 16, including researchers from the University of Hawaii, and a couple of Coast Guard cutters each undertake one or two cleanup operations a year, lasting from 15 to 30 days. Before the funding cutbacks, contracted vessels and crews were also deployed in cleanups lasting up to 90 days.
The administration's lack of follow-through hasn't stopped environmentalists from lobbying the president to designate more monuments before leaving office, a step the White House is considering. Declaring an area a national marine monument effectively stops commercial fishing and oil drilling.
Bush's latest budget seems to recognize that more is necessary. The administration has requested $4.6 million for marine debris efforts nationwide next year, acknowledging the "additional cleanup and prevention resources are needed to protect this Marine National Monument."
Drafts of regulations that will guide the monument's management also recognize a need for more funding but say elimination of debris is virtually impossible.
Barry Christensen, who as manager of the wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll is one of the monument's few human inhabitants, says the added protections could do some good _ by raising the level of awareness about the problem and helping to change people's habits.
"It's asking a lot for a monument proclamation to do that, but you have to start some place," he said in an interview from Hawaii. "We can pick up plastic off the beach from now until the end of time, but unless people stop putting it in the ocean our problem will never go away."
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