DIANA LEONE / DLEONE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, Coast Guard commander for the Honolulu District, digs a hole for native grass to enhance a wetland for the endangered Laysan duck on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.
Creating a perfect Midway getaway
Federal protection bodes well for native seabirds and seals
MIDWAY ATOLL, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands » The code for people who work and live here is "Wildlife have the right of way."
That means if a dozen Laysan albatrosses decide to plunk down in the middle of a road, the human in a golf cart or on a bicycle must detour around them.
When airplanes take off and land, the runway is cleared by people who gather the birds roosting there, put them in the back of a pickup truck and move them to a safer location.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's attitude on managing this place is a far cry from the clubbing of eggs and birds on the runway that was routine during the Navy's tenure, said John Klavitter, wildlife biologist for the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
"I don't blame the Navy -- they had a different mission," Klavitter said during a tour of the refuge last week for U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, Coast Guard district commander, and their staffs.
In fact, when Klavitter brings visitors to Midway's Eastern Island to see wildlife habitat restoration, he always begins with a moment of silence for the military personnel who lost their lives defending Midway in World War II.
But Klavitter is happy to point out that as the human presence on Midway Atoll decreases, the number of nesting seabirds, endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green sea turtles increases.
Now that President Bush has included this refuge and 140,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the other tiny islands and atolls that make up the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the country's first marine national monument, Klavitter said, things can only get better for the wild creatures.
"I think if anything, it will be more protection," he said.
The new monument proposes to better coordinate the work of:
» The Fish and Wildlife Service, which has primary responsibility for most land and a varying amount of nearshore waters around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
» The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction out to three miles from land and for Kure Atoll.
» And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine sanctuaries program, which has primary responsibility from state waters out to 50 miles from land.
Barry Stieglitz, Fish and Wildlife Service project leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said that the three governmental agencies have been working together "in terms of not looking at federal wildlife refuges and ecosystem reserves and state waters, but protecting the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands ecosystem."
One of the challenges will be to figure out how many people can visit Midway as ecotourists without "detracting from our purposes to protect the historic aspect and wildlife," Stieglitz said. Fish and Wildlife does not expect that more than 14 people a week would visit the island, because that is the capacity of charter planes that service it, he said.
Already, since Bush's proclamation June 15, the service has gotten word that catch-and-release recreational fishing will end in the monument, Stieglitz said.
Higher-ups in NOAA will work out details of how the nine commercial boats that fish in the Northwestern Islands will be compensated for pulling out over the next five years, said Allen Tom, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA sanctuaries program.
Abercrombie wants to make sure that the no-fishing regulations around the monument are enforced.
He is talking with Coast Guard officials about whether they could take on that duty, given added equipment and personnel.
Another priority is eradicating invasive species of plants and animals that have toeholds on some of the islands, Abercrombie said.
But during his visit, Abercrombie said he wants to be sure that the monument designation comes with money to take care of it.
"Otherwise it's just a piece of paper," he said.