Fact Sheet: The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Story

  • May 22, 2006

Biological, ecological, cultural, historical significance of Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI)

  • Remnants of extinct submerged volcanoes, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) are made up of dozens of uninhabited islands, pinnacles, reefs, banks, shoals and atolls.
  • The NWHI start west of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands and extend nearly 1200 miles from Nihoa Island on the east end to Kure Atoll on the west.
  • The NWHI are the northernmost coral reef archipelago, and the most remote and relatively undisturbed coral reef ecosystem in the world.
  • The NWHI represent some 69% of the shallow water tropical coral reefs under the U.S. flag.
  • Biologically rich – the NWHI support more than 7000 species of which 25% are endemic to Hawaii - important species include more than 14 million seabirds and endangered Hawaiian monk seals, the only surviving marine mammal wholly dependent on coral reefs. More than 100 terrestrial species are unique to the NWHI.
  • Ninety percent of the green sea turtles in Hawaii – a major tourism draw – nest in the NWHI.
  • Nihoa Island was occupied from 1000 to 1700 A.D. by Native Hawaiians and is part of a rich cultural legacy in the region with over known 130 cultural and religious sites.
  • Sites such as Midway Island have served as a crossroads in the central Pacific for hundreds of years which has left an important historical and military legacy.

History of Protection of the NWHI

  • The NWHI have suffered decimation of seabird populations by feather hunters in the 19th and 20th century, depletion of numerous rare, indigenous species through alien introductions and other extractive activities. In spite of these abuses, the NWHI remain one of the least altered major coral reef systems in the world.
  • The enormous significance of the region's fish and wildlife resources was officially recognized as early as 1909 when President Roosevelt established the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, one of the first in the nation.
  • President Clinton acknowledged the unique and special character of this region by issuing two Executive Orders protecting the marine resources adjacent to the refuge and directing NOAA to begin planning to declare the entire 1200 mile long archipelago a National Marine Sanctuary.
  • More recently, the State of Hawaii acknowledged the significance of the region by prohibiting all commercial activities in State waters 0-3 miles around all of the NWHI.
  • The existing Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve is 38 times the size of Yellowstone Park – 120,000 square miles or 84 million acres.
  • The federal government is developing draft rules under which the new Sanctuary will be managed. This draft Environmental Impact Statement will be released for public comment in June 2006.
  • Whether or how much commercial and recreational fishing will be allowed, whether to allow bio-prospecting, whether to allow or how to manage tourism and who can get permits for research, among other things all will be decided as part of the plan.
  • Congressman Case, whose district includes the NWHI, introduced a bill to create a refuge in federal waters in which commercial activities, including commercial fishing, would be banned in all federal waters. If enacted, Case's bill would, at 137,000 square miles, create the largest marine reserve in the world.

Commercial Fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

  • Historically, commercial fishing has had a dramatic effect on the NWHI. Abundant populations of black-lipped pearl oysters were virtually wiped out by commercial fishing between 1929 and 1931 and remain rare today.
  • An aggressive lobster fishery in the 1980s and 1990s drove down lobster numbers to a fraction of their original population and 6 years after a court-ordered ban on lobster fishing little recovery is evident.
  • Juvenile endangered Hawaiian monk seals are believed to have relied heavily on lobsters for food. Starvation among juvenile seals is now common and populations of this animal continue to slip toward extinction.
  • Today, the only active fisheries in the NWHI are a bottomfish fishery comprised of only eight vessels and small though unregulated and unmonitored amounts of trolling for pelagic fish.
  • As part of the Sanctuary designation process, an environmental consulting firm hired to assess commercial fishing in the region concluded that the bottomfish fishery is incompatible with the goals and objectives of the Sanctuary noting that bottomfish are susceptible to overfishing from which they have a limited ability to recover; and the fishery operates in the absence of adequate scientific data and already shows signs of overfishing.
  • In a Federal Register announcement on June 14, 2005 the National Marine Fisheries Service declared that overfishing is occurring for bottomfish of the Hawaiian Islands including in part of the NWHI.

The Economic Impacts to Hawaii of Closing the Commercial Fishery

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  • While presenting significant local ecological concerns, the NWHI bottomfish fishery accounts for a mere one percent of the total pounds of fish and only two percent of the value of all commercial fish landed in Hawaii each year.
  • According to Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council data, the eight boats fishing in the NWHI lose between $7000 and $32,000 each year. A recent study estimated a total net value to fishermen of $300,000 annually.
  • Bottomfish from the NWHI make up less than 40 percent of the Hawaiian commercial bottomfish catch but less than 15% of the bottomfish consumed in Hawaii.
  • Fish from the NWHI is 1-3 weeks old by the time it reaches the docks and is generally lesser quality than locally caught fish or imports arriving daily by jet from the South Pacific.
  • Even though there originally were 17 bottomfish permits available for the NWHI, only eight are being fished because of lack of interest.
  • Private funds are available to buy out the eight fishermen at fair market value.
  • Wespac not only opposes a buyout and termination of the bottomfish fishery, they want to expand fishing in the Coral Reef Reserve to include, a renewed lobster fishery, a coral reef fish fishery and a fishery for precious corals.

Economic Consequences to Hawaii from Ending Commercial Fishing

  • Except for eight small commercial fishing operations, almost no commercial activity takes place in the NWHI.
  • It is unlikely that the market will register the absence of fish from the NWHI or that the price of fish in Hawaii will change given that bottomfish wholesale prices have been near $3.50/lb for 20 years.
  • Since the NWHI represents only 1% of the total catch HI catch, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants are also unlikely to notice any effect from ending fishing.
  • The NWHI are so unique and globally significant they are being nominated as a World Heritage Site.
  • To date, tourism in the NWHI has been limited primarily to Midway Island. With its large airport and rustic facilities it can provide a point of entry to the region for limited historical and ecotourism.
  • Promotion of the NWHI can enhance Hawaii's reputation as an exotic destination in the Pacific, whether or not people take the opportunity to go visit the region.

Hawaiian Views of Protection

  • Hawaiians have spoken out loudly, clearly and near-unanimously in favor of protecting the NWHI from commercial activity. On this issue Hawaiians have been largely united.
  • More than 100,000 comments from Hawaii and the Mainland in favor of protection have been sent to state and federal agencies over the past four years.
  • Hawaii would generate favorable international attention as being environmentally progressive for protecting such an ecologically rich and important area.
  • Native Hawaiians often refer to the NWHI as the Kupuna Islands because of their spiritual and religious significance. Native Hawaiians largely support a complete closure of the NWHI to commercial activities in federal water as the State has done with its waters.
  • There is widespread agreement that Native Hawaiians should be able to continue to use the NWHI for traditional practices and subsistence.
  • There is virtually no cost economically or politically to protecting the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and potentially significant long-term benefits for Hawaii's international image, tourism and for future generations.