Scientists skirt critics of Northwest Islands bio-survey
An esteemed group of international scientists heads to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in two weeks, after convincing state officials that their research will help, not hurt, the newly designated Marine National Monument there.
The Census of Marine Life expedition seeks to bring back samples of sponges, algae and small marine animals that have until now largely been overlooked in exploratory cruises of the remotest part of the Hawaiian archipelago, said principal investigator Rusty Brainard.
After six years of research trips, "we know the fish and the coral" of the Northwestern Islands, said Brainard, who heads the coral reef ecosystem division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.
But smaller plants and animals are poorly known and need to be identified, he said.
But some question whether collecting those creatures for study could potentially harm the ecosystem itself.
"There's many that think there shouldn't be any activities in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands," Brainard said. "They think we don't need to do any research, that the best thing is to leave the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands alone."
But, he asked, "how will we know if these places change (due to global warming, for example), if we don't know what's there now?"
The conservation groups Environmental Defense and KAHEA (the Hawaiian- Environmental Alliance) have actively questioned the merits of further research.
The groups are wary of research that does not directly contribute to the management of the islands, Environmental Defense spokeswoman Stephanie Fried said.
They sought to stop the Census of Marine Life cruise from going this fall. Instead, the groups played a role in scaling back some aspects of the research cruise, to reduce the potential impact on the ecosystem.
Fried praised the state Department of Land and Natural Resources for opening its permit process to comments and said she hoped it would set a precedent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA, which are joint federal trustees of the new monument. But Fried said she was troubled by a shortage of time for public review of changes in the permit late last week.
Final changes to the permit had to be done quickly to allow the voyage to leave as scheduled, said Dan Polhemus, administrator of DLNR's Division of Aquatic Resources. He promised that public review would be better organized among all three agencies next year.
"This isn't a set of fly-by-night bio-prospectors looking to rip off the reef," Polhemus said. "These are many of top academic institutions in U.S."
Hawaiian monk seal expert Bill Gilmartin asked the state Land Board to delay granting a permit for the cruise until more was known about potential effects on monk seal habitat. Charles Littnan, a NOAA monk seal ecologist, told the Land Board Friday that he is comfortable that the research cruise will not disturb the seals.
The scientists leaving Oct. 6 on a NOAA vessel are experts whose cumulative expertise will be "a fantastic opportunity" to increase knowledge of the remote isles, said NOAA's Randy Kosaki.