View Full Version : A Struggle to Preserve a Hawaiian Archipelago and Its Varied Wildlife

Thursday, December 21st, 2006, 02:57 AM
A Struggle to Preserve a Hawaiian Archipelago and Its Varied Wildlife

Published: December 19, 2006

MIDWAY ATOLL, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument — As the pilot of the Coast Guard C-130 transport plane banks and circles over atoll after deserted atoll on a five-hour, 1,400-mile flight from Honolulu, the sheer emptiness of the world’s largest nature reserve becomes starkly apparent.

Yet two of the most powerful men in the world — first President Bill Clinton (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/bill_clinton/index.html?inline=nyt-per) and then President Bush — struggled for eight years to upgrade the area into a true reserve, in a process that involved more than 100 public meetings and 52,000 public comments, most of them supportive. The main obstacle was a tiny, marginally profitable fishing fleet composed of eight boats and employing fewer than 20 people, most of them part-time, but vigorously defended by a powerful senator and an entrenched federal bureaucracy.
“Rarely have so many fought so hard for so long for so few,” said Jay Nelson, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts and one of many environmentalists who worked to support the presidents’ efforts.
This national monument is so remote that only two dozen people at a time will be able to visit, and only here in Midway, one of two populated islands.
Though the combined land surface of what some officials call the American Galápagos is a minuscule 3,328 acres, just four times the size of Central Park, the coral surrounding them, in hues ranging from magenta to aquamarine, stretch out for miles from each atoll and total more than 5,000 square miles, larger than Connecticut.
This was the real stake: a vast collection of some of world’s least damaged reefs and the home to the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Its population of about 1,200 is falling by 4 percent a year, so scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are making extraordinary efforts to stem the decline. When twins were born in Midway this summer, the scientists, knowing that twins rarely survive in nature, captured them and took them to Honolulu, where they were fattened up with herring.
They were returned on this special Coast Guard flight to Midway, where they will be released, probably next spring, once they have accumulated enough blubber to survive the long process of learning to fend for themselves.
The archipelago also harbors some of the highest densities in the world of so-called apex predators, the sharks, groupers and jacks who have no natural predators of their own but whose numbers have been depleted elsewhere by fishermen. If all fishing stops, scientists say, these reefs could be returned to a truly pristine state within a decade.
“The islands don’t have as diverse marine life as, say, Indonesia, because they’re so far north,” extending up to the latitude of New Orleans, said Russell Brainard, NOAA’s chief coral reef scientist in Hawaii (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/national/usstatesterritoriesandpossessions/hawaii/index.html?inline=nyt-geo). “But in terms of their size and the low level of interference from man, they’re already unique.”
With the exception of highly militarized Midway and Tern Island during World War II, the 10 islands or island groups have been nature reserves of one sort or another since President Theodore Roosevelt (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/r/theodore_roosevelt/index.html?inline=nyt-per) established the Hawaiian Islands Reservation in 1909. Today, under the tutelage of Fish and Wildlife Service (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/f/fish_and_wildlife_service/index.html?inline=nyt-org) biologists, the islands are slowly recovering from the depredations of humans and the plants and creatures they introduced, including rabbits, rats and ironwood.
What some jokingly call the second Battle of Midway began innocuously enough early in the second Clinton administration, when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/b/bruce_babbitt/index.html?inline=nyt-per) hired William Y. Brown, a former chairman of the Ocean Conservancy, and asked him to look into expanding the department’s role in protecting the oceans.
“It became clear that the most important coral reef complex in American waters that needed protection was the Northwest Hawaiian Islands,” Mr. Babbitt said in an interview.
The Interior Department (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/i/interior_department/index.html?inline=nyt-org) includes the Fish and Wildlife Service, which had already banned fishing in the archipelago’s near reefs to a depth of 60 feet. Beyond that, the first three miles of water belonged to the State of Hawaii, which opposed an end to fishing, according to the Democratic governor at the time, Benjamin J. Cayetano. The waters extending from there to 200 miles were managed by NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department.
Dr. Brown recalled that the islands were being intensively fished for lobster, and that Fish and Wildlife Service officials in Honolulu were saying there was nothing they could do about it since the fishing was in waters deeper than 60 feet. A second, smaller fishery of bottom fish like pink snapper and Hawaiian grouper was also being depleted, he said.
Mr. Babbitt had enlisted Mr. Clinton’s support for designating the islands a national monument, along with a dozen or so other places, and in 2000, Mr. Babbitt proposed the idea to Hawaii’s senior senator, Daniel K. Inouye. Mr. Inouye, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, replied with a strongly worded letter that Mr. Babbitt summarized as saying, “Don’t you dare.”

Instead, Congress approved a measure that gave the president authority to move toward turning the islands into a sanctuary, a much weaker designation that generally allows continued fishing, to be administered by NOAA.
In 2001, James L. Connaughton, Mr. Bush’s chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, picked up where the Clinton administration left off. But, Mr. Nelson and other participants said, the process of creating a marine sanctuary dragged on for years because of Mr. Inouye’s and NOAA’s unwillingness to curb fishing.
But several groups continued to press for protection for the islands, including Kahea, a Hawaiian environmental group; the Hawaii Audubon Society (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/a/audubon_society/index.html?inline=nyt-org); and the Washington-based group Environmental Defense. In September 2005, Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/r/republican_party/index.html?inline=nyt-org), reversed the previous administration’s pro-fishing policy and declared the three-mile state waters off limits to all extraction.
Last April, Mr. Bush held a private White House viewing of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s documentary “Voyage to Kure,” named after the northwesternmost of the islands. Elliott A. Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, said that he spoke to Mr. Bush before and after the screening and that Mr. Bush made clear he wanted all fishing to end as quickly as possible, though he did not say how he proposed to achieve that. “I think he wanted to do something spectacular for the environment that didn’t conflict with existing policies,” Mr. Norse said.
Mr. Connaughton said Mr. Bush had been following the travails of the sanctuary-creation process, and when a signing ceremony was scheduled for June 15, Mr. Connaughton met with him the morning before it. The measure to be signed, more than five years into the administration’s efforts to turn the islands into a sanctuary, was only an intermediate document.
To Mr. Connaughton’s “surprise and delight,” Mr. Bush told him that given the time spent and the public support elicited, he had decided to designate the islands a national monument the next day, naming the state, NOAA and the Interior Department as co-managers and ending all fishing in five years. “It was exciting,” Mr. Connaughton said.
“The lawyers worked through the night” to draft the declaration, he said, and Mr. Bush signed it the next day.
Mr. Inouye declined to be interviewed for this article or to release his letter to Mr. Babbitt.
For Mr. Babbitt, the strong resistance put up by NOAA and Mr. Inouye was not about saving those 20-odd jobs. “They were afraid that this is the beginning of a slippery slope, leading the American public to understand that our oceans are in serious trouble from overfishing,” he said, “and that having started in one place, we will expand our vision to stronger regulation of the entire ocean.”
Kitty Simonds, the longtime executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which advises NOAA on fishing policy, said the bottom fish in the islands remained plentiful.
“We’re not asking the president to get rid of the monument, but we want to continue our bottom-fish fishery because it’s perfectly healthy, that’s the bottom line,” she said. “And we think it should be possible to start a sustainable fishery for reef fish and to harvest coral.”
Dennis Heinemann, senior scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, disagrees. He led a study in 2004 that found that the population of the commercial species of bottom fish in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands had dropped by roughly half in 15 years. The popular pink snapper fell by 84 percent in 10 years, with other snappers also showing declines in population and size. Samuel Pooley, director of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, confirmed these estimates but said they were compatible with a healthy fishery.
The 2004 study acquired new relevance after an analysis of Hawaiian monk seals’ fatty tissues, commissioned by NOAA and led by Sara Iverson, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, revealed that “bottom fish, particularly snapper and boarfish, are their main prey,” she said in a telephone interview. The study, which debunked earlier notions that the seals ate mostly shallow-water reef fish and lobsters, is undergoing peer review and is expected to be released early next year.
While Mr. Connaughton was encouraged by a Pew offer to buy out the fishermen, five of the eight remaining holders of fishing licenses for the islands’ bottom-fish fishery refused to negotiate, saying they were hoping for a bigger payoff in the form of a Congressional earmark appropriation, according to their leader, Gary Dill.
Regardless of whether a buyout occurs, Zenen Ozoa, another fisherman with a Northwest Hawaiian Islands license, said the cost of fuel had made fishing in such faraway areas less and less profitable. “I think the fishing will end within a couple of years, even without a buyout,” he said.
As for the twin seals, they were curious and alert during the long flight to Midway and plunged with relish into a fenced-in area of water with a white-sand beach. NOAA scientists say they have a good chance of reaching maturity once they are released.
Monk seals, which have not changed in 15 million years and are the oldest in the pinniped family, are considered living fossils, and every individual counts. The day before the flight to Midway, a freshly weaned pup, the first born on Oahu Island in eight years, entangled itself in an illegally set gillnet and drowned.

REMOTE RESERVE A Coast Guard plane over Midway.

The atoll is home to many marine species, including spinner dolphins.

During World War II, part of the atoll was highly militarized. http://i74.photobucket.com/albums/i268/Morton_XXI/19hawa-3.jpg
The impact of humans is evident: above, the remains of an albatross that ate plastic debris.


Dr. Solar Wolff
Thursday, December 21st, 2006, 03:52 AM
I flew over these islands once. Even though they are some distance from Hawaii, they look tropical in that the water surrounding them forms coral reefs which only happen if the ocean temperature stays above 70 F.