Preserving Paradise: Huge Patch of Hawaiian Reefs Gets Monumental Protection

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, August 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Preserving Paradise: Huge Patch of Hawaiian Reefs Gets Monumental Protection


Raloff, Janet, Science News


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.

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)--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.

Roosevdt'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. …

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