WASHINGTON – Cleanup efforts have slowed and garbage continues to pile up in a remote chain of Pacific islands that President Bush two years ago made the biggest and most environmentally protected area of ocean in the world.
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 each year still bring an estimated 57 tons of garbage and discarded fishing gear 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 smorgasbord of lighters, plastic bottles, refrigerators and fishing nets that litter its beaches and get snagged on its pristine reefs. But the total 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.
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 in November 2007 by first lady Laura Bush, Congress last year added only $352,000 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 wasn't 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 have 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 pick up. 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."
The administration's lack of follow-through in the northwestern Hawaiian chain hasn't stopped environmentalists from lobbying the president to designate more monuments elsewhere before leaving office, a move the White House is considering. Declaring an area a national marine monument effectively stops commercial fishing and oil drilling.
The president's latest budget seems to recognize that more is needed. The administration has requested $4.6 million for marine debris efforts nationwide next year, admitting the "additional cleanup and prevention resources are needed to protect this Marine National Monument."
Draft regulations that will guide the monument's management also recognize the need for funding, but say the complete elimination of debris is "virtually impossible" given the magnitude of the problem.
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 explained 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."