Thursday, June 21, 2001

2 plans offered
for NW islands

Both proposals alarm local
groups who fear federal
protection will be negated

By B.J. Reyes

Two proposed plans for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have local environmentalists concerned over the federal protection status recently granted to the region by then-President Bill Clinton.

An executive order signed by Clinton in December established the 84-million acre Northwestern Hawaiian Island Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve -- the largest protected area ever created in the United States.

The islands contain up to 70 percent of America's coral reefs, are home to Hawaiian monk seals and other endangered species, and also are a key nesting and feeding area for more than 14 million Pacific seabirds.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which has asked the Bush administration to review the executive order, plans to unveil its own management plan for the Northwest Hawaiian Islands when it wraps up its meeting today at the Ala Moana Hotel.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, has listed the islands among six ocean sites it hopes to have designated as wilderness areas, affording them the same protections granted for lands with the same designation.

Local environmentalists, however, were concerned that the conservancy proposal may undermine the local efforts that resulted in Clinton's executive order. Still, they said they are more concerned with the fisheries council's action, which they see as an attempt to undermine the reserve.

"The reserve is in place, and that's the will of the people," said Cha Smith, executive director of Kahea: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance. "My concern right now is what Wespac (the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council) is doing and their attempt to undermine a huge public initiative."

Sylvia Spalding, spokeswoman for the fisheries council, said the group is not opposed to conservation efforts but believes that the executive order is too broad. "We believe that fisheries management should remain within the fishery management council process mandated by Congress," she said.

Under the order, fishing in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands is limited to fisheries already permitted in the area and recreational fisherman. The order also caps commercial and recreational fishing at current levels; prohibits gas, oil, mineral production and the removal of coral throughout the preserve; and bans disposal of materials in the waters, among other provisions. The order does allow native Hawaiian subsistence and cultural uses to continue.

The fisheries council's proposal for the islands has been in the works for six years and includes a management plan for the coral reefs and surrounding ecosystem, Spalding said. The council was scheduled to approve the plan at its meeting in March but postponed action because of uncertainties surrounding the executive order, Spalding said.

Environmentalists said the plan failed because it never took the executive order into account.

"It doesn't reflect any of the discussion that has gone on in the 12 months prior with respect to the executive order," said Stephanie Fried, a senior scientist with the advocacy group Environmental Defense. "It's as if all these changes never happened. They got slammed when they presented this thing."

The council's plan, if approved, would be sent to the U.S. Commerce Department for approval before being forwarded to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which sets commercial fishing regulations.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Conservancy says its proposed wilderness sites were selected because they have some measure of protection already in place. In addition to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, the group is seeking the wilderness designation for Prince William Sound and Glacier Bay in Alaska, the Channel Islands in California, the Dry Tortugas in Florida and the San Andres Archipelago in Colombia.

Both Fried and Smith expressed similar reservations on the plan. "We would have to work with them more closely to tailor their campaign to the local needs here," Smith said.

Tara Stewart, an Ocean Conservancy spokeswoman, said the group hopes to work with local environmentalists, adding that the initiative is in the early stages. "We're just starting the national dialogue," she said.

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