Hawaii Governor Safeguards Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

By Sunny Lewis

HONOLULU, Hawaii, September 30, 2005 (ENS) - With the stroke of a pen, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle Thursday created a marine refuge in all state waters in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In addition, the governor announced that the state will pursue designation of the 1,200 mile long chain of tiny islands and atolls as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At a time when many of the world’s oceans are being degraded, the state refuge puts all waters from Nihoa, the tiny island beyond Niihau and Kauai, to Kure Atoll, the northernmost land mass in the Hawaiian chain, into a limited access, no extraction marine refuge. State waters extend for three miles out from the shoreline of each island or atoll.

“These rules set in motion the most significant marine conservation initiative in the history of Hawaii by creating the state’s largest marine refuge,” said Lingle, a Republican.

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Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle at the marine refuge signing in the Governor's Office (Photo © S. Lewis)
The rules set aside 100 percent of state waters from extractive uses, including commercial and recreational fishing, and require an entry permit for all other activities.

Continuance of Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices will be allowed in the refuge, to perpetuate the living culture of these islands, the governor said.

At the signing ceremony in the governor's office, Peter Young, chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the new marine refuge rules demonstrate the government's responsiveness on conservation measures requested by the public. Two rounds of public hearings held statewide since 2002 resulted in over 23,000 public comments received.

"Most of them suggesting we ought to take the most stringent protective measures possible in protecting this place, and that's what we're doing," said Young.

“The public input on these proposed rules has been overwhelming,” Young said. “We heard loud and clear from the public that they feel that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is a special place worthy of the highest levels of protection.”

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are now protected as a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve created in 2000 by Executive Order of President Bill Clinton. It is the largest conservation area, marine or terrestrial, ever established in the United States.

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has initiated a public assessment process to designate the Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve as the 14th national marine sanctuary under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

In a policy change from a noncommittal position, Lingle and Young announced Thursday that the state supports a true non-extractive sanctuary in the federal waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that would close those waters to all fishing vessels.

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Peter Young, chair of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, said he was pleased and excited to announce the new protections. (Photo © S. Lewis)
“Our commitment extends beyond state waters," Young said. "We support the sanctuary process and we support an organized phase-out of commercial fishing in federal waters to make state and federal waters closed to fishing."

"We believe this will create the largest protected marine area in the world,” said Young, who visited the islands in 2003.

There should be some areas where no take is permitted, he said. “As one of the last pristine wilderness locations on Earth, it is only right to consider the long-term preservation of this area and strive to have one place that is free from extraction."

The nine fishing vessels that now operate in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will be bought out "at fair market value," said Young, with some combination of federal and private funds. No state moneys will be required in the buy-out, he believes. In total, the nine vessels bring in about 200,000 pounds of bottomfish worth about $1.5 million per year.

To applause of invited conservationists at the news conference, Young said, "We're going to change our position and officially encourage the sanctuary program to follow the lead of the state and prohibit fishing in the federal waters as well."

Governor Lingle said that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands region is, “Hawaii’s gift not only to our residents, but to the global community as a world-class natural resource.”

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White terns or fairy terns, Gygis alba, in flight above Laysan albatross chicks on ground. Laysan Island, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo by Dr. James McVey courtesy NOAA)
With the support of Hawaii Audubon and other conservation groups, Young said the state will seek designation of the remote and pristine islands as a World Heritage site.

"Typically world heritage sites are natural resources or cultural resources, or a combination," said Young. "Our application will be as a combination, because in Hawaii the natural resources are cultural resources."

The state marine refuge further protects the majority of coral reef habitats in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, most of which are under state jurisdiction.

They also enhance protection of critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal habitat, helping to ensure the seal’s survival, and nurture recovery of other endangered and threatened species that populate these waters.

While the reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are among the healthiest in the world, they are not immune from present and future threats from the pressure of human activities.

At a time when Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are moving to weaken the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, the actions of the Republican Lingle administration have won the approval of environmentalists.

Cha Smith, executive director of KAHEA, the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, said she was "thrilled." Five years ago KAHEA organized a workshop of Hawaiian elders and conservationists who have since led the effort to bring about a true marine refuge in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

"The state responded appropriately to the needs of that resource and to the people of Hawaii," Smith said Thursday.

Stephanie Fried, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense, called the state's announcement "an extraordinary breakthough, very unexpected. Hoped for, but we never knew whether we'd see it or not."

"It's a real moment of political courage," Fried said, "It will be paying dividends for generations to come. It's not just for the country, but frankly, for the world."