Trouble in Hawaiian Islands Marine Monument on World Ocean Day

By Sunny Lewis

HONOLULU, Hawaii, June 8, 2007 (ENS) - Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, environmentalists say all is not well in America's first national marine monument on World Ocean Day, observed each year on June 8.

They are outraged at the recent decision of the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources, BLNR, to allow bio-prospecting in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.

Conservationists and native Hawaiians are attending the BLNR meeting today in Honolulu to demand a moratorium on all research permits in this far-flung island chain that stretches for 1,400 square miles north and west of the main Hawaiian islands.

"The BLNR's decision is unacceptable," said Vicky Holt-Takamine, president of the 'Ilio'ulaokalani Coalition and a member of the Congressional commission developing a bio-prospecting policy for the state.

Vicky Holt-Takamine is a master teacher of traditional Hawaiian dance and chant at the University of Hawaii. (Photo courtesy U. Hawaii-Manoa)
"Bio-prospecting is the theft of natural resources from native peoples. It should not happen in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or anywhere in Hawaii," she said.

The conservationists argue that the BLNR should not grant rights to bio-prospectors when a law on the issue is being drafted.

On the BLNR agenda today are several permits for a University of Hawaii research mission through the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. These researchers are seeking to collect thousands of samples of living organisms with the possibility of patenting the biological material they find.

The Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology received $2.3 million in federal funding for this research project last summer, but the permit applications were made public only last week.

The ship for this research mission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hi'ialakai, is requesting permission to dump human waste in the monument waters. According to the permit application, the ship's waste system is broken and unable to separate grey water from black water, so the institute says it must dump both types of waste into the ocean on a daily basis.

Reef fish and healthy corals at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. (Photo by James Watt courtesy DOI)
But dumping waste is prohibited in both the state and federal waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

"This is not the way to treat a fragile and unique marine environment," said Marti Townsend of KAHEA: The awaiian-Environmental Alliance. "Dumping waste water onto ancient, pristine coral reefs is inexcusable, especially when it is the federal government doing the dumping."

Townsend and Holt-Takamine will go before the BLNR today to point out that research is being allowed before any monument management plan is in place.

By state and federal law, research in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands must further the conservation and management goals of the monument. Because there is no monument management plan in place, there is no way for decision-makers to assess whether the proposed research is necessary for the monument, they argue.

The Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology says a 2005 agreement with the National Marine Sanctuary Program allows its scientists to conduct the scientific research required for the development of a science-based ecosystem management plan for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. This reserve is included in the new monument.

President George W. Bush established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument just over a year ago, on June 15, 2006.

Most of the world's 1,200 remaining monk seals live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo courtesy Marine Conservation Biology Institute)
Proclaiming the new monument, the President said, "These undersea forests and mountain ranges comprise the largest remote reef system in the world. And this region holds the largest and healthiest untouched coral reef system in the United States. And we're going to preserve it. ... The Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce will work with the state of Hawaii and the public to develop a plan to manage the monument."

"As a marine national monument, the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will receive our nation's highest form of marine environmental protection," said the President.

"The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are a public trust resource," said Townsend today. "It is ultimately the public's responsibility to ensure this unique and fragile ecosystem is properly protected."

"So far, state and federal managers for the NWHI have failed to fulfill the mandates of the state refuge and the federal monument," Townsend said. "We are here to help them get back on track."

Allan A. Smith was apppointed chairman of the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources on May 1 by Governor Linda Lingle. His background is in agriculture and land development. (Photo courtesy DLNR)
The advocates are demanding that the Board of Land and Natural Resources, a function of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, honor its own 45 day public comment policy.

After consulting with the state Office of Information Practices, the Board adopted a policy to allow the public 45 days to review and comment on all Northwestern Hawaiian Islands permit applications.

But the Board staff does not abide by this policy, instead releasing information less than a week before decision-making.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources, DLNR, is well aware that Hawaii's ocean resources are in danger.

In a joint report with The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii released today to mark World Ocean Day, the DLNR warns that Hawaii's coral reefs are in urgent need of protection.

"Hawaii's coral reefs are a natural legacy in jeopardy threatened by run-off, sedimentation and marine debris, the introduction and spread of invasive species, destructive fishing practices, recreational overuse and the specter of climate change," the report states.

"These threats have so damaged Hawaii's coral reef ecosystems over the past century that nearshore fisheries have declined by more than 75 percent."

"The good news is that coral reefs are resilient," said Kim Hum, director of marine programs for The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. "If we act in time, we can still restore this priceless natural asset. Returning our reefs to health is essential if we are to create a sustainable future for our islands."

Titled "The Living Reef," the report was produced with funding provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Hawaii's coral reefs and nearshore waters are inhabited by some 7,000 marine life forms, a quarter of them found nowhere else on Earth. Hawaii's cultural traditions and island way of life are intimately tied to its reefs, which contribute more than $350 million annually to the state's economy, or about $1 million a day.

"Coral reefs provide Hawaii's people with countless benefits from the fresh fish we eat, to the surf we ride, and the beaches we enjoy," said Dan Polhemus, administrator for DLNR's Division of Aquatic Resources.

"They also serve as nature's breakwaters, protecting us from the destructive power of the sea. In more ways than we might realize, our island lifestyle depends on our coral reefs," he said.

To protect Hawaii's marine resources and ensure a sustainable future, the DLNR and the Nature Conservancy propose six "proven measures" for restoring coral reefs:

  1. Return to the traditional Hawaiian way of catching only what is needed using responsible fishing practices.

  2. Invest in effective sewage treatment facilities and an integrated system for preventing other land-based sources of shoreline pollution.

  3. Increase funding for community-based near shore marine management.

  4. Increase funding and staffing for marine resource enforcement.

  5. Adopt the recommendations of the 2003 State Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan to ensure prevention, early detection, and rapid response to invasive aquatic species.

  6. Create nursery areas that will allow fish to grow to full maturity and reproduce at a rate that exceeds the rate of extraction.
"The Living Reef" report is online at:

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