No Reef is an Island

George Bush finds the deep blue ocean in his heart

President Bush’s legacy, for all intents and purposes, may be sleeping with the fishes. In an unscientific survey of 109 historians, 61 percent of them ranked Bush the worst president in history—a number that undoubtedly would be higher if James Buchanan had mastered that whole leave-the-country-in-one-piece-when-you-exit-office thing. Furthermore, the populace outside the Ivory Tower seems to agree. Last December, a USA-Today Gallup poll indicated that 67 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush’s job as President, and a NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reported that a mere 18 percent of Americans will miss him when he leaves office.

There’s not much to miss if one pauses to think about the past eight years. Bush has presided over two wars, an economic crisis, the drowning of New Orleans, obscene amounts of governmental cronyism, and a bitter culture war dividing the country into Red and Blue states. But hope springs eternal. If life gives you lemons, then make lemonade. In President Bush’s case, if your legacy is sleeping with the fishes, then embrace the fishes.

And this is literally just what Bush has done. Last Tuesday, the President designated three new stretches of the Pacific as Marine National Monuments, which effectively bans commercial fishing, seafloor mining, oil exploration, and other commercial exploitation. The act builds upon Bush’s 2006 decree that created a similar monument near the Northern Hawaiian islands, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (which seems to have a syllable for each of its 139,800 square miles). At the time, Papahanaumokuakea was the largest patch of ocean ever preserved, a record broken only by Tuesday’s act, which encompasses 195,280 square miles of pristine marine sites including the Mariana Trench, Rose Atoll, and a string of uninhabited islands and reefs. If Kanye West ever spent sleepless nights wondering whether or not President Bush cares about fish, then his worries should be put to rest.

In total, Bush has protected an oceanic area larger than Texas, a rare act worthy of praise in an administration with a dismal record of environmental stewardship—from refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol to recently pushing through midnight regulations that allow coal-power plants to be built nearer to national parks. While it may be true that Bush “has done more to protect unique areas of the world’s oceans than any other person in history” as Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environmental Group, told the New York Times on Monday, giving the President the title “Lord Neptune, King of the Seas” may be too hasty. This policy, like so many other good policies of the Bush Administration, will ultimately fall victim to earlier policy blunders—this time, specifically, Bush’s unwillingness to act on climate change during his presidency.

While carbon-dioxide levels and coral reefs may seem unrelated, the fate of the world’s oceans and the level of our carbon output are inextricably tied together. As carbon levels in the atmosphere increase, the world’s ocean water becomes more acidic. These more acidic waters have a direct, detrimental effect on coral growth. Moreover, acidic waters reduce the survival of animals with calcium-carbonate shells or skeletons, like krill. The killing off of animals that occupy a low level in the marine food chain undermines the chain and can destabilize entire oceanic ecosystems. In the end, these atmospheric changes from greenhouse gases have the potential to be catastrophic for the same fragile reef systems that Bush vowed to protect on Tuesday. As Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the BBC, “Unless we deal with global warming, all other protective measures for coral reefs will be rendered meaningless.”

The ultimate flaw in Bush’s ocean policy is the belief that the oceans can be protected piecemeal—an approach that stems from terrestrial conservation. On land, protecting sites in patches can be successful. For example, cutting down trees around Yellowstone will not immediately harm the trees within Yellowstone. The oceans, however, are different because water and life move freely without the same geographic restraints as on land—illustrated by the fact that ocean currents bring in thousands of pounds of garbage from nearby islands into the protected Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Regardless of well-intentioned efforts like creating marine sanctuaries, oceanic environments will never be protected until we tackle the larger issues facing oceans as a whole, such as pollution, overfishing, and atmospheric carbon.

Despite these flaws, President Bush has made a noble effort to protect the aquatic world. However, his pioneering steps should be the first, not the last, as future administrations supplement his efforts with a more holistic approach to protecting the seas. With time, some of the sting of even this President’s failures will be tempered by the legacy he leaves with his deep blue heart.

Steven T. Cupps ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears regularly.