Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Northwest isles support
most U.S. coral reefs

Years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invited me to French Frigate Shoals for a six-week stay. I lived with eight researchers working there at the time, and wrote a five-part series about this remote wildlife refuge for the Star-Bulletin. A few days after sending the articles to my mother in Wisconsin, she called me.

"I didn't know you were in Hawaii," she said. "I told everyone you went to France."

This mistake didn't surprise me. Most Hawaii residents I talked to about that trip also thought I went to France. In fact, I was only 500 miles northwest of Honolulu.

I've always thought it a shame that so few people know about Hawaii's northwest chain, because it's one of the most spectacular wild places left on Earth. But now, thanks to the Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative Research Program, a partnership since 1998 between the University of Hawaii and the state's Division of Aquatic Resources, the light is dawning.

Under this program, two research ships took 50 scientists and educators from state, federal and private organizations around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands last September and October to collect data. These small islands, atolls, submerged banks and reefs stretch for more than 1,000 miles northwest of the main islands, covering 3,523 square miles.

One of these atolls is French Frigate Shoals, named after two French ships that nearly ran aground there in 1786.

Most of Hawaii's northwest chain has been a wildlife refuge since Teddy Roosevelt declared it so in 1909, thus effectively stopping the slaughter of seabirds there. Until now, however, its coral reefs, the foundation of most life there, had never been assessed.

The study results are in now, printed in a colorful magazine-style report excellent for teaching or for simply learning more about Hawaii's marine life. Here are some interesting facts I learned from the booklet:

>> The 10 islands that make up the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands contain 69 percent of all coral reefs in U.S. waters.

>> Those islands are home to 14 million seabirds.

>> Parrotfish (uhu) are seven times more plentiful in the northwest islands than in the main islands.

>> Jacks (ulua, kahala) and sharks dominate the fish populations in the northwest, a situation not seen in any other large coral reef in the world. More than 54 percent of the fish in the northwest chain consist of these top predators, compared with 3 percent here.

>> Hawaii's coral reef reserve is the second-largest marine protected area in the world. (First is Australia's Great Barrier Reef.)

Currently, public hearings about making this jewel of the north a national marine sanctuary are being held throughout the state. These hearings are a result of President Clinton's creation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in 2000. Although this is a separate political entity from the Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative, the two are addressing the same topic: protecting our coral reefs.

Because Hawaii's northwest chain is a remote refuge, its reefs have been spared the damage suffered by others throughout the world. Now marine debris, expanding fisheries and eco-tourism threaten them.

We Hawaii residents can help preserve this mostly pristine area by supporting the funding of this and other coral reef research programs. It's up to us. French Frigate Shoals, after all, is not in France.

You can read this fine coral reef report at any of Hawaii's public libraries or online at A few hard copies are available. Call 956-7479.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears weekly in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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