Preserving Paradise

Huge patch of Hawaiian reefs gets monumental protection

Dozens of sun-drenched atolls and reefs jut out of Hawaii’s northwestern waters, creating an archipelago some 1,400 miles long. Virtually free of human habitation, those islands’ sandy beaches may look like ideal spots to get away from it all. But to marine biologists, this region is the place to find it all—lush biodiversity and ecosystems little stressed by human presence.

UNSEALING THEIR FATE? The expanded protection for habitat of the Hawaiian monk seal—the most endangered U.S. marine mammal—might halt its population decline. J. Blair/Corbis

On June 15, President George W. Bush designated the waters throughout this region as the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. The largest marine protected area in the world, it spans from Kure Atoll in the west to Nihoa Island in the east. Its area—139,000 square miles—is nearly the size of Montana.

Within 5 years, commercial and recreational fishing in the region must end. Bans immediately take effect on other activities, including tourism, that might harm or harass the ecosystems’ inhabitants.

Such no-fishing, no-disturbance zones—known as marine reserves (SN: 4/28/01, p. 264: Available to subscribers at Underwater Refuge)—are pivotal to the preservation of unspoiled underwater communities and to the recovery of heavily overfished or disturbed ones, notes marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University in Corvallis. So, the creation of this gigantic new reserve “is a very, very big deal,” she says.

Evolving protection

More than a century ago, many northwestern Hawaiian islands—major bird rookeries—were mined for excrement used in guano, a fertilizer. In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt quashed such activities, which were despoiling the islands, by designating the archipelago’s terrestrial sites a national wildlife refuge. That federal protection, which remains in effect today, has recently expanded into the aquatic world.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton issued a pair of executive orders to safeguard that region’s coral reefs. The affected area was slightly smaller than the new monument. Clinton’s rules prohibited any increase in fishing and any mineral exploration, dredging, or other reef-damaging activities.

Roosevelt’s and Clinton’s actions set the stage for President Bush to make this area into a marine sanctuary. However, that designation is subject to time-consuming congressional review. Moreover, companies that fish the area had planned to challenge the commercial fishing, which is permitted in some sanctuaries.

So, the day before Bush had planned to announce his sanctuary proposal, the administration opted for a different tack, explains Ben Sherman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md.

Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, a presidential proclamation can, by fiat, turn federal territory of special significance into a monument. Such designations take effect immediately, and rules for protecting them are not subject to appeal, Sherman says.

“Our duty is to use the land and seas wisely, or sometimes not use them at all,” Bush said at the proclamation ceremony.

The monument designation can provide far greater protection than a sanctuary designation. The virtual phase-out of fishing is one example, Lubchenco says. Only people working in the area, such as researchers, will be permitted to conduct what the rules call “sustenance” angling—fishing for survival during long stays at sea. That catch must be consumed within the monument, and it mustn’t diminish the quality or integrity of the ecosystem from which it’s gleaned.

No corals—alive or dead—may be removed. Before any vessel can enter the monument, its hull must first be checked for nonnative species and any aliens found must be removed. Boating will be restricted almost exclusively to researchers, Sherman says.

His agency will draw on satellite imaging and other Department of Homeland Security intelligence to enforce restrictions on the passage of vessels through these waters, he adds. Also prohibited: any interference with local wildlife, such as “luring or attempting to lure a living resource by any means.”

What’s so special?

The monument is home to an estimated 7,000 species, one in four of which isn’t found anywhere else. In terms of this diversity, Lubchenco says, this reserve “gives us a window into what much of the Pacific Ocean was probably like”—before people began depleting top predators, the biggest fish (SN: 6/4/05, p. 360: Available to subscribers at Empty Nets).

These waters are the primary habitat for 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals, nearly all the surviving members of this species. The area is also home to 70 percent of U.S. coral reef habitats and the healthiest large coral reefs on Earth. More than 150 species of algae can be found in the monument, including some that occur only here.

Creating this new monument will likely go down as “the crowning environmental achievement of the Bush administration,” says Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Wash. “It also sends a message to the world that we can make big places in the ocean safe for their inhabitants.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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