Monterey Bay marine sanctuary to soon include large undersea mountain

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Monterey Bay marine sanctuary off California's Central Coast will expand its borders to include one of the largest undersea mountains in U.S. waters, President Bush announced Friday.

Speaking at the Smithsonian's new Ocean Hall exhibit in Washington, D.C., Bush vowed to proceed with the long-awaited expansion of the sanctuary to include the Davidson Seamount, a dormant undersea volcano, and its coral forests.

"This 585-square-nautical mile addition will safeguard one of the largest seamounts in the U.S. waters and will protect an extraordinary array of ocean creatures," Bush said to the applause of ocean regulators and activists.

Once it becomes part of the sanctuary, the seamount will be permanently off limits to offshore oil drilling and mining, and protected from dumping.

This would be the first significant boundary expansion of an existing national marine sanctuary under the Bush administration.

Two years ago, Bush created the world's largest marine protected area in the waters around the northwest Hawaiian Islands.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality has proposed protections for waters around U.S.-owned islands and atolls in the central and South Pacific, including Palmyra and Rose atolls, and the northern portion of the Mariana Trench.

Marine conservationists and scientists have been nudging Bush to leave an "ocean legacy" that would protect maritime areas from future mining, oil and gas exploration, and unsustainable or ecologically destructive fishing practices.

Advocates argue that such a legacy may help temper criticism of the Bush administration for rolling back environmental protections for wildlife and habitat, opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming and siding with industry on regulation of pollutants.

Bush signaled Friday that he has warmed to this idea. "I'm sprinting to the finish; I mean, four months, you can actually get a lot done," the president said. He added that he has asked four Cabinet secretaries "to work to find additional areas in the Pacific that could be eligible for federal protection."

Adding the Davidson Seamount to the Monterey Bay sanctuary will not be finalized until about Nov. 1, said William J. Douros, western regional director of the National Marine Sanctuaries program.

The Davidson Seamount, about 70 miles off the coast, reaches 7,874 feet from the ocean floor. Its peak remains 4,120 feet beneath the ocean's surface.

Government scientists working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute who have explored its peaks and slopes have discovered sea life found nowhere else. The mountain, spreading over 25 miles of sea floor, is home to vast forests of deep, cold-water corals, sponges and an array of unusual deep-sea animals. Fish, sperm whales and seabirds feed in the highly productive surface waters above the seamount.

Most of the inhabitants of this cold, deep sea are slow-growing, slow to reproduce and thus especially susceptible to the ravages of bottom-trawling, a fishing technique that drags weighted nets across the sea floor.

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