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BUSH DECLARES WORLD’S BIGGEST MARINE SANCTUARY More than 500,000 square miles to be protected in Pacific

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, ) - The United States will establish the world's largest marine protection area in the Pacific Ocean.

The area, known as a marine national monument, spans more than half a million square kilometres in the Pacific Ocean.

It encompasses the Mariana Trench near the Northern Mariana Islands, the Rose Atoll in American Samoa and a chain of remote islands in the Central Pacific.

"This is very, very big," James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Issues, told reporters ahead of President George W. Bush's announcement on Tuesday.

"In the last several years, it's on par with what we've been able to accomplish on land over the course of the last 100 years," he said.

He says the total area will "comprise the largest areas of ocean or ocean seabed set aside as marine protected areas in the world" and will help protect rare fish and bird species, coral reefs and underwater active volcanoes.

Collectively, the three areas will nudge out the Phoenix Island Protected Area, established in 2008 by the Pacific nation of Kiribati as the world's largest protected area.

They also top Mr Bush's last such announcement of a marine protection area in 2006 - the 363,000 square kilometres of Pacific Ocean near the northwestern Hawaiian islands.

Vice president for global marine programs at the environmental group Conservation International, Roger McManus, says the designations are "wonderful opportunities. You don't get a better natural laboratory than we have in these places.

"What we have in these islands is a natural laboratory to understand how humans affect coral reefs. It will do a lot to protect the coral reefs and also do a lot restore fish populations in the regions."

Residents in the Northern Mariana Islands however have expressed concern about the federalisation of their waters, and the impediments to local use this may have.

Radio Australia News © 2008 ABC

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