Saving the ocean, Hawaiian style

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President Bush’s sweeping safeguards for a California-sized expanse of Hawaiian waters are a welcome use of presidential clout.

Can Sacramento do the same on a much smaller scale along our coast?

In the case of Hawaii, Bush pulled a stunner. A president, who will never be known for his environmentalism, declared 140,000 square miles as a federal refuge.

Some 4,000 unique species of fish, birds and underwater life will be preserved in a watery range of tiny islands and reefs off the northern tip of Hawaii.

It was a remarkable and assertive act by Bush, who was reportedly won over by a documentary movie on the island chain.

With his signature, Bush shot past a slow-moving federal study process to create the largest marine reserve in the world.

But there was only a small commercial fishing fleet that worked the area, and Hawaii’s governor had already made the state waters a hands-off refuge.

Big as Bush’s move was, it was safe in political terms.

In California, preserving the coast is a more complicated dance.

Later this week, the state Fish and Game Commission may set up marine reserves along a 220-mile stretch of the central coast from Santa Barbara north to Half Moon Bay.

Pockets where fish breed may get special protections — or they may not, depending on the balancing act between fishing interests, scientists, state authorities and outdoors groups.

It’s an experimental first step aimed at finding a compromise that will rejuvenate marine life and allow a healthy fishing industry.

If successful, the rest of California’s coastline could be eligible for the same treatment.

Two years ago, two national commissions said the nation’s oceans were at a crisis point — overfished, polluted and poorly regulated.

Here, along the Pacific Coast, some species have dropped to 5 to 10 percent of historic counts, and the commercial fleet has shrunk by half since the early 1990s.

The moves by Bush and California authorities are answers aimed at stemming this decline.

The steps take different approaches. In Hawaii, an entire ecosystem will be preserved by walling off nearly all human intrusion. In California, a more finely-tuned approach will be tried.

Reefs or fish-rearing areas favored by hard-hit species may be protected as marine reserves while boaters, divers and anglers would be free to visit, fish and enjoy nearby areas.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, outspoken on climate change, has also emphasized ocean conservation.

It’s a pledge that includes a healthy coastline. He should continue this support by backing the marine-reserve effort and making sure state agencies have the money needed to study and carry out the task.

The Pacific is worth preserving here, too.