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With a stroke of his pen, former President George W. Bush created three new marine monuments some 2.5 times larger than the entire U.S. national park system. The ocean reserves in the remote Pacific are bigger than Texas—335,000 square miles (540,000 square kilometers) of ocean in all concentrated around U.S.-controlled islands—and "the largest conservation area ever protected anywhere on Earth," says William Chandler, vice president for government affairs at the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.
"The important lesson that Bush seemed to understand is that the ocean does have unique places that are worth protecting," he adds. "It's not just one homogenous body of water out there.
But these Marine National Monuments—Mariana Trench, Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll, plus Papahanaumokuakea created off the shores of Hawaii in 2006—are so remote that very few people will ever get to see this new part of the national heritage. And even should you be so lucky as to visit Palmyra Atoll in the remote islands, you would not see much of its splendors without a wet suit and scuba gear.
So ScientificAmerican.com teamed with scientists to put together several slide shows revealing the flora and fauna of one part of these new reserves—as well as a glimpse of the serious science they can support.
After all, these places are among the last pristine environments of any kind in the world. That will provide a glimpse of what a healthy coral reef ecosystem, for example, really looks like. "The first thing humans have done historically is overfished and removed the big things from the near-shore marine environments: sea turtles, sharks, manatees, big fish," says marine conservation scientist Dan Brumbaugh of the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, who continues to conduct research at Palmyra. "So the fact that those are still there is striking. There's not many places where we can study what those things do to the overall reef ecosystem."
And, ultimately, it is such reserves that may provide clues as to how natural systems can resist or rebound from larger man-made environmental problems such as overfishing and climate change and its attendant ocean acidification. "Marine reserves give us resilience," Chandler says. "They are seed beds or havens for species in the future."
Slide Show: Palmyra and Scientists
Slide Show: Life on the Reef
Slide Show: Fish, Birds and Other Larger Fauna