Dole urges Bush to move to save Carolinas' reefs

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., has urged President Bush to protect deep-water coral reefs off the Carolinas as a national monument.

Dole's letter to the president Tuesday followed a report on the pristine reefs, which extend from North Carolina to Florida, in Sunday's Observer. It adds to a growing chorus of support to protect the reefs, which could potentially be damaged by offshore drilling and deep-sea trawling.

Bush drew conservationists' praise in 2006 for creating a vast national monument in the waters off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The southeastern reefs, which are just beginning to be explored, are said to be on a short list of other potential monument designations the administration is considering.

Bush also called last month for more offshore gas and oil exploration, much of which is banned by congressional and presidential orders. Dole reversed her longstanding opposition to drilling off the N.C. coast to support giving states the option of allowing exploration.

“While environmentally sound exploration for new resources is vital for our country's economic vitality, so is protecting the countless other natural resources in our oceans,” Dole wrote to the president.

“I am confident a marine national monument will not only protect this sensitive ecosystem, but also be good for fishing and not inhibit access to new natural resources. This area is a national treasure and deserves the protection that comes with a national monument designation.”

Her letter cited untapped scientific knowledge the reefs may hold. Some coral species could help understand past climate and ocean conditions. Anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs are being developed from sponges found among the reefs.

In May, more than 120 scientists urged Bush, through a petition to the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, to designate a national monument to protect the reefs.

S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford asked for protection of an area off South Carolina called the Charleston Bump.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which regulates federal waters, has proposed protecting about 25,000 square miles of reefs because they're important fish habitat.

The council recently asked the administration to extend fishing rules negotiated for the habitat proposal to any national monument declaration.