U.S. Government Mulls Options for Protecting Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

While the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have been protected for nearly a century as a refuge, the surrounding reefs are entering a critical year for their protection in 2006.

ABOVE FRENCH FRIGATE SHOALS — The remote 1,400-mile (2,250-kilometer) long string of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are blanketed with the 14 million seabirds that nest there. Beneath the surface of the surrounding waters, fish crowd into pristine coral reefs.

The islands are home to about 7,000 species, a quarter of which are unique to Hawaii.

While the islands have been protected for nearly a century as a refuge, the surrounding reefs are entering a critical year for their protection in 2006.

"This refuge that spans 14-hundred miles is America's Galapagos, and Americans don't know it," said Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and a pivotal player in the fate of the reefs.

Over the next year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will be developing rules for managing the waters of the island chain under a proposed sanctuary status, which could prohibit or even expand fishing and activities such as coral and lobster harvesting.


Banning fishing in the 132,000 square-mile (337,920 square-kilometer) area would create the largest no-take marine sanctuary in the U.S., second in the world only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

According to Hawaii officials, there are currently nine bottomfishers working the area, using weighted, baited fishing lines to catch about $1.5 million (euro1.3 million) worth of snappers and sea bass.

Gov. Linda Lingle, who this fall signed rules banning all fishing from the state waters extending 3 miles (5 kilometers) off the shores, has been pushing for a similar ban for federal waters which extend out 50 miles (80 kilometers).

Lingle led a trip earlier this month which included Connaughton and other federal officials from NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They flew over the islands, landing on Midway Atoll, a historic World War II military site and the only island in the area open for regular visits from the public.

Like other users of the area -- including environmentalists, the Fish and Wildlife managers of the two refuges that govern the islands, and the fishermen who want to continue their access to the islands' bounty of fish -- Lingle is awaiting details of the federal plan to protect the islands' waters.

"We want it to happen. But we do want it to happen in a way that Hawaii continues to play a role in it," Lingle said at Midway.

The key reason for granting the status to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is its relative permanence. Unlike the area's current reserve status, sanctuary status comes with permanent funding and cannot be easily changed or revoked by a new president, according to NOAA.

NOAA is scheduled to hold public meetings throughout Hawaii and in Washington D.C. on the options for managing the island's waters in mid-2006.

But even that is not enduring enough, according to Congressman Ed Case, a Democrat from Hawaii.

A sanctuary can include significant fishing and even if the new rules do ban fishing, they can be reviewed every five years and changed, he said.

Case has introduced a federal bill that would create a refuge banning fishing in the islands, with the exception of traditional subsistence fishing, through an act of Congress.

"Why not just make the call and say 'Pau, already. We're not going to fish here anymore,'" said Case, using the Hawaiian word for "done."


On the Net:

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/midway/

Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve: http://hawaiireef.noaa.gov/

Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/pacificislands/wnwr/pnorthwestnwr.html

Source: Associated Press

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