KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Officials from the Pew Charitable Trusts and one of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau's grandsons were in Bermuda on Thursday calling for the creation of the Atlantic's biggest marine reserve.
The ambitious "Blue Halo" plan would create a vast reserve in ecologically-rich waters between the tiny mid-Atlantic territory's coastal fishing areas, and its 200-mile (322-kilometer) exclusive economic zone boundary.
Advocates say it would safeguard significant parts of the Sargasso Sea, a 2-million-square-mile (3-million-square-kilometer) warm water body in the North Atlantic that is a major habitat and nursery for numerous marine species. It would potentially start 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Bermuda's shore and ring the territory, ensuring that anglers could still fish offshore.
Bermuda is the only island within the Sargasso Sea, known for its mats of brownish Sargassum seaweed and as the spawning place for European and American eels.
Philippe Cousteau, an ocean campaigner who is frequently seen discussing marine issues on U.S. television, said the Blue Halo reserve would impact few Bermuda fishermen, since most don't venture beyond 25 miles (40 kilometers) from shore. If anything, he says, it would improve catches since research has indicated that fishermen eventually haul in bigger catches when a nearby marine reserve provides a safe haven for fish to grow.
Cousteau believes the plan would boost tourism, Bermuda's top economic drivers along with offshore financial services.
"I think it's something that Bermuda can really turn into a gem," Cousteau said during a Thursday phone interview from Bermuda, where he and Pew officials were meeting with various officials, fishermen and others.
The previous government had asked Pew for help in coming up with a strategy to create a marine reserve. But the administration of Premier Craig Cannonier, who led his party to power in December elections, has been largely mum about the proposal and it's unclear when public consultation on the idea might begin.
Thursday calls and an email to Bermuda's Ministry of Environment & Planning went unanswered.
But Matt Rand, director of Pew Charitable Trusts' Global Ocean Legacy Campaign, said "there has been strong community support for the Blue Halo during the many meetings and outreach efforts that Pew staff has been engaged in."
International scientists have called for at least 10 percent of the ocean to be placed in reserves in order to help provide a buffer from the impacts of overfishing, increasing acidification, coral bleaching and pollution. It's at less than 1 percent now, according to Pew.
But no-take reserves that expand on less-restrictive marine protected areas have gradually become a growing trend, with U.S. states and nations across the world barring fishing boats from areas.
Commercial and sport fishing interests have criticized some of these marine reserves, especially on the open sea, as unnecessarily restrictive and badly planned. The Billfish Foundation, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based anglers group, has been critical of the Blue Halo initiative.
"Shutting out anglers could spell a tremendous loss for the Bermudian economy and most critically, a loss of fishing opportunities for a community of anglers that strongly depend on Bermuda's marine resources," the group said in a statement last year.
But Cousteau, whose grandfather Jacques introduced TV viewers to an undersea world starting in the late 1960s, said since the large majority of fishermen don't travel beyond 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the coastline, Bermuda's exclusive economic zone has been left mostly open.
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