11/17/2005 - As tourists begin their annual high-season trek to the beach resorts of Oahu and other Hawaiian Islands, another Hawaii that few Californians know, and even fewer have visited, is in the news. Beginning 160 miles northwest of Kauai and extending nearly 1,200 miles across the Pacific Ocean is an archipelago of uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals and atolls that make up one of the most spectacular marine systems on Earth. Its fate lies in decisions being made now in Washington on how it will be managed.This archipelago, known as the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, is one of the most remote and relatively undisturbed coral-reef systems in the world. Almost 70 percent of the tropical, shallow-water coral reefs that exist in U.S. waters are in this one place, together with 7,000 species of both marine and terrestrial life, 25 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth. More than 14 million seabirds make these islands their home for at least a part of the year, along with the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the only surviving marine mammal worldwide that is wholly dependent on coral reefs.
In late September, Hawaii's Republican Gov. Linda Lingle called on the Bush administration, which is drafting the rules that will determine how these islands will be managed, to end commercial fishing in the federal waters of this remote and beautiful region, an area that encompasses approximately 134,000 square miles. At the same time, she signed regulations banning commercial fishing in state waters in these islands, which extend from the shoreline out 3 miles. Given the size of this archipelago and the magnitude of wildlife that it contains, the governor's request is one of the most important steps that any U.S. governor has taken to protect the nation's marine environment. It is strongly supported by a large majority of Hawaii's residents, particularly by many Native Hawaiians, who consider these islands an important part of their cultural and religious heritage and want to see them protected.
While limited in scope, commercial fishing is considered by many to be highly detrimental to this fragile marine environment. Although the National Marine Fisheries Service claims that the small fleet of nine vessels that are permitted to fish in these islands does little harm, and that the fisheries there are healthy, the results of an independent, peer-reviewed study from the Marine Conservation Biology Institute and the Ocean Conservancy released this month shows that since the late 1980s many of the fish targeted by commercial fishermen in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands have been consistently overfished or have steadily declined.
Similarly, throughout the 1990s, federal regulators refused to take action to stop the overfishing of lobsters in these islands. Then, in 2000, a federal judge closed the lobster fishery, which by then had collapsed. Over the space of 21 years, between 1977 and 1998, it was estimated that an average of eight small boats a year had taken 12 million lobsters, destroying this once abundant resource and threatening the survival of the Hawaiian monk seal, which is one of the world's most endangered marine mammals that relies on lobster as a food source. To date, the lobster population has shown no signs of rebounding, and it is unclear just when, or if, it ever will.
Gov. Lingle's call for an end to commercial fishing in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands recognizes the fragile nature of this spectacular place. It is also a practical request. The small number of fishing vessels operating there, added to the marginal economic value of the fishery (a reported net profit of only $300,000 in 2003, according to the U.S. Commerce Department), provides a remarkable opportunity for the federal government to phase out commercial fishing in these islands and to simultaneously provide a fair and reasonable amount of compensation to the nine fishermen who work there and who have few other options to earn a living.
There are few places on Earth where so much can be protected with so little dislocation of people. This is one of them. Hawaii's governor has called on the federal government to help protect one of the most spectacular places in her island state, as well as one of the nation's and the world's great ocean treasures. Let us hope that President Bush responds to her call.
Joshua S. Reichert directs the environment division of the Pew Charitable Trusts (www.pewtrusts.org).