Hawaiian Marine Reserve To Be World's Largest

Fish gather at Rapture Reef in the French Frigate Shoals, part of the area to be designated as a monument.
Fish gather at Rapture Reef in the French Frigate Shoals, part of the area to be designated as a monument. (Photo By James Watt -- NOAA)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

President Bush plans to designate an island chain spanning nearly 1,400 miles of the Pacific northwest of Hawaii as a national monument today, creating the largest protected marine reserve in the world, according to sources familiar with the plan.

Establishing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a strictly protected marine reserve, which Bush is slated to announce this afternoon, could prove to be the administration's most enduring environmental legacy. The roughly 100-mile-wide area encompasses a string of uninhabited islands that support more than 7,000 marine species, at least a fourth of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

The islands include almost 70 percent of the nation's tropical, shallow-water coral reefs, a rookery for 14 million seabirds, and the last refuge for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and the threatened green sea turtle. The area also has an abundance of large predatory fish at a time when 90 percent of such species have disappeared from the world's oceans.

Encompassing nearly 140,000 square miles, an area nearly the size of Montana and larger than all the national parks combined, the reserve will just surpass Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as the largest protected marine area in the world. It will also, however, be one of the least accessible.

"This is a landmark conservation event," said Joshua Reichert, who heads the Pew Charitable Trusts' environment programs and had pushed to have the area designated as a marine sanctuary. "The government is saying in certain places, for certain reasons, it is important to restrict activities that have the potential to damage the marine environment, of which fishing is a big one."

"The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands represent an incredible opportunity to preserve nature much as it was, or has been, for millions of years, because the hand of man has not wreaked the same kind of havoc as we have elsewhere in the world," said Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), who has lobbied for the designation since he was elected in 2002.

The plan had been resisted by local Hawaiian fishing interests that feared losing access to traditional fishing grounds.

The nation has 13 marine sanctuaries scattered from the Florida Keys to the Channel Islands off the California coast. They provide varying levels of protection and have had mixed success in preserving sensitive ecosystems. In areas where fishing was banned outright, scientists have charted a resurgence of larger fish and coral reefs, but in areas that allow commercial and recreational fishing, damaged ecosystems have struggled to rebound.

Administration officials declined to comment on the record, but one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging the president's announcement, said the plan will end fishing in the area within five years. It will allow Hawaiians to have access to the area for other traditional activities and will include the Midway World War II memorial, a facility that is open for research, education and ecotourism. Visitors wishing to snorkel, dive or take photographs in the area will have to obtain a permit, and no one may take fish, wildlife, corals or minerals from the region.

President Theodore Roosevelt established a bird sanctuary on some of the islands in 1909. President Bill Clinton created a coral-reef ecosystem reserve in the area by executive orders in late 2000 and early 2001, but he stopped short of designating a permanent sanctuary. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) sent the White House a letter in February hailing the sanctuary plan as "a marvelous opportunity to leave a historic mark on U.S. and world conservation history." Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) also endorsed the idea.

The proposal has had a cooler reception from Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka, who have traditionally been protective of local fishermen, but the administration is relying on a coalition of environmental groups -- headed by the Pew Charitable Trusts -- to raise the money for buying out the fishermen.

By declaring the islands a national monument, Bush will circumvent a year-long congressional approval process required in the designation of an area as a marine sanctuary, and will provide the area the highest regulatory protection possible under the law. Clinton designated several terrestrial and marine national monuments toward the end of his tenure, though he did not name a marine monument of this scope.

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