Gulf of Mexico marine sanctuary idea dead for now

By: AP
By: AP

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- President Bush's proposal to create a string of marine sanctuaries in the Gulf of Mexico, known as the "Islands in the Stream," has died at least for now after Republican senators opposed it, a sanctuary official said.

The sanctuaries would have restricted fishing and oil drilling in nine coral banks and hard-bottom areas in a large loop around the Gulf from Texas to Florida. Ecologically, the idea dovetails with research showing that the Gulf marine ecosystem relies on a ring of deep-water reefs and banks connected by the clockwise motion of ocean currents extending in a loop from Belize to the Florida Keys.

But Billy Causey, southeast regional director for the National Marine Sanctuary Program, said the proposal has been put on hold. He said this week that opposition from the senators and fishermen was too intense and that he received "pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Interior" to put the proposal on ice. He declined to provide specifics.

"That doesn't mean it's not a good project," said Causey, whose sanctuary program is under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officials with the Interior Department did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

In April, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Alabama's two Republican senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, sent a letter to the White House expressing their "strong objections" to the plan.

Vitter said in a statement that his concern was that the sanctuaries would "have held potentially grave consequences for the Gulf Coast's fishing and energy interests."

"Given our nation's growing energy concerns and the Gulf's important contribution to our nation's oil and gas industry, it would have been irresponsible of us to further compound these issues by closing off areas that may hold oil or natural gas reserves," Vitter said.

Causey said the protected areas would be small and change very little in practice. Fishing and drilling are restricted in some of the areas.

Vitter said he would oppose attempts to renew the push by President-elect Barack Obama's administration.

Bush has been seen as trying to defend the oceans. He had asked his staff to look at protecting parts of the Pacific Ocean, and two years ago, he set aside the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the surrounding waters, creating a marine monument spanning 140,000 square miles.

Dennis Heinemann, senior scientist with The Ocean Conservancy, a national marine advocacy group, said he was disappointed by the administration's decision to drop the Gulf proposal.

"There is not enough protection in the Gulf or virtually anywhere else in U.S. waters," he said.

With predictions of climate change and well-documented declines in marine life, he said it was urgent to save marine environments from destructive activities like oil drilling and over-fishing.

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