The remote 1,400-mile 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 of birds, fish and marine mammals, 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.
“This refuge that spans 1,400 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 will be developing rules for managing the waters off 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 area would create the largest no-take marine sanctuary in the nation, second in the world only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Area now fished
According to Hawaii officials, there are nine bottomfishers working the area, using weighted, baited fishing lines to catch about $1.5 million worth of snappers and sea bass.
Gov. Linda Lingle, who in the fall signed rules banning all fishing from the state waters extending three miles off the shores, has been pushing for a similar ban for federal waters extending out about 60 miles.
Lingle, joined by Connaughton and other federal officials from NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, flew over the islands last month, 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 the environmentalists, the fish and wildlife managers and the fishermen who want to continue their access to the islands’ bounty of fish, she 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,” she 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.
Ban reviews of fishing bans?
But even that is not enduring enough for some.
A sanctuary can include significant fishing and even if the new rules do ban fishing, they can be reviewed every five years and changed, said U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii.
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.”
The Washington-based Ocean Conservancy supports both Case’s bill and the sanctuary process. The group wants to see the Clinton-era executive orders that established the coral reef ecosystem reserve kept in place and bolstered by further protections, said Ellen Athas, director of ecosystem protection.
The coral of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have been spared the intense development and fishing seen at reefs elsewhere in the country. The next year presents an opportunity to preserve them into the future, Athas said.
“We need to be real firm on no fishing,” she said.
White House sees consensus
Athas, who led the ocean’s division of the White House Council on Environmental Quality when then-President Clinton established the reserve, said Connaughton’s presence on Lingle’s trip indicates possible administration support for tough rules in the region.
Connaughton said there’s strong interest by a number of constituencies toward the highest levels of protection, while still allowing for access to such places as Midway.
“So I’m hopeful that a really solid protection plan can be developed,” he said. “In fact, I expect it because there’s a lot of consensus.”