Marine biologist Yuko Stender surveyed the diverse beds of the rare encrusting blue coral Montipora turgescens in the lagoon coral gardens at Midway Atoll in June 2000.

Planning for federal marine
sanctuary starts

The project is a result of an executive
order by President Clinton

By B.J. Reyes
Associated Press

Federal officials meeting on Kauai this week began the process of crafting a plan establishing waters around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a National Marine Sanctuary.

A management plan would cover preservation of the coral and regulate fishing in the waters off the 10 mostly uninhabited islets and atolls extending 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.

The meetings on Kauai come two months after the National Marine Fisheries Service rejected a management plan proposed for the archipelago by The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a decision applauded by conservation groups.

In a Record of Decision dated June 14, the Fisheries Service said the council's plan "appears to be in conflict with, or duplicates, the existing resource management regime in effect" under an executive order approved by the Clinton administration.

The December 2000 executive order, which was amended in January 2001, set aside 84 million acres of ocean around the archipelago as the Northwestern Hawaiian Island Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the largest protected area ever established in the United States.

Since then, federal agencies have been working to designate the reserve as a National Marine Sanctuary under federal law. Advocates say a sanctuary designation will provide better management for the area.

The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, the policy-making organization for the management of fisheries in much of the Pacific, had been working on its own management plan for the islands several years before Clinton's order, Executive Director Kitty Simonds said.

In proposing its plan last year, the organization said it felt the executive orders were too broad, and asked the Bush administration for a review. The order was upheld.

"We feel that we've done a good job with keeping the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from being overfished," Simonds said Thursday. "Our belief was that we should still be in charge of fishing regulation."

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

Preservation groups, including Environmental Defense and Kahea, the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, had accused the Western Pacific Council of trying to undermine the federal initiative.

"We feel that that's a very good signal that the order's being acknowledged," Kahea Executive Director Cha Smith said Thursday. "The message is very positive, and we're very pleased that they recognized such blatant illegality.

"The executive order should be upheld."

Simonds said the council was not surprised by the Fisheries Service's action, but noted that the Record of Decision states a final management plan must be developed in collaboration with the council, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Interior and the State of Hawaii.

"We will work with everyone," Simonds said. "We can't predict what the outcome will be in terms of regulations for the sanctuary, but we will be working with the reserve."

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where more than 70 percent of the nation's coral reefs are found, are also home to endangered Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles, albatrosses and other birds, and species of fish, algae and invertebrates found nowhere else.

The sanctuary would be the 14th in the nation and the second in Hawaii, which has been home to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary since 1992.

On Kauai the Northwestern Hawaiian Island Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Advisory Council met Wednesday and Thursday to review comments collected over a 30-day public comment period and a series of hearings in Hawaii and Washington, D.C., in April.

In addition to the management plan, the advisory council also must draft an environmental impact statement.

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