Clinton Safeguards Hawaiian Coral Reef Ecosystem

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2000 (ENS) - President Bill Clinton today took action to preserve and protect the pristine coral reef ecosystems of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a remote archipelago of atolls, reefs and submerged lagoons home to a vast array of fish, invertebrates, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals.

Speaking at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, Clinton announced that he will sign an executive order establishing the "Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve." The reserve, which measures some 131,800 square miles in size, will constitute the largest protected area ever created in the United States.

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Table coral in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photos courtesy NOAA)
"In creating this unique preserve, we're establishing the strongest level of protection for oceans ever enacted, and setting a new global standard for reef and marine wildlife protection," Clinton said. "By any measure, creating this coral reserve is a big step forward, not just for marine conservation in the United States, but for the health of oceans and reefs around the world."

The new reserve will span the marine waters and submerged lands of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are located west of the main Hawaiian Islands and stretch in a northwesterly direction for more than 1,079 nautical miles (2000 kilometers). The reserve will lie adjacent to state of Hawaii waters and submerged lands and the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and will encompass the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge where it extends outside of state waters.

The main purpose of the reserve is to insure the long term conservation and protection of the area, which contains more than 70 percent of the coral reefs located in U.S. waters.

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Endangered monk seals like this one cling to existence in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The mostly uninhabited area supports a dynamic environment home to more than 7,000 marine species, about half of which are unique to the Hawaiian Island chain. The area is inhabited by several threatened and endangered marine species, such as the Hawaiian monk seal, the hawkbill sea turtle, the leatherback sea turtle and the green sea turtle.

Currently, there is one fishery operating in federal waters of the newly designated reserve, as well as two additional fishery management plans for crustaceans and precious corals that are not currently active. There is also some recreational fishing and ecotourism allowed in the area.

The executive order signed today will impose a number of conservation measures throughout the preserve. The order will also create 15 Reserve Preservation Areas around various islands and banks within the reserve, where all consumptive or extractive activities will be capped at existing levels.

The executive order will make it unlawful to explore for oil and gas. No drilling, dredging or alteration of the seabed will be permitted, and no discharge of any material other than gray water will be allowed.

Anchoring on coral will be prohibitied. Removing, taking, or harvesting any living or non-living coral resource or species except as expressly allowed in the executive order will also be forbidden.

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A tendril from a fishing net weighing 300 pounds hangs on a coral head at French Frigate Shoals in the newly protected island chain.
The reserve will be managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a component of the U.S. Department of Commerce. NOAA will enforce the provisions of the executive order under the authority embodied in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which promotes cooperative enforcement with government agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Today is a great day for oceans," said Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta. "The President's executive order will keep 3.5 million acres of pristine coral reefs thriving, and will support a varied group of threatened and endangered species."

Clinton said that coral reefs are far more than "beautiful," noting that they generate millions of dollars through fishing and tourism. Coral reefs also protect coastal communities from the pounding waves of fierce storms, and they provide scientists with valuable resources for medical breakthroughs, the President added.

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Endangered loggerhead turtle in the new reserve
"Unfortunately, the world's reefs are in peril," said an emotional Clinton, who noted that more than one quarter of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed by pollution, damage from dynamite fishing, coral poachers, unwise coastal development and global warming.

"In some areas, such as the Central Indian Ocean, 90 percent of the coral reefs have died, bleached as white as dead bone," Clinton said.

The demise of the Indian Ocean reefs is not an isolated problem, Clinton said. Last month, the President noted, scientists at the International Coral Reef Symposium presented strong evidence that unless action is taken now, half the world's coral reefs will disappear within 25 years.

The demise of coral reefs is also correlated with global warming and rising ocean temperatures, Clinton said. That correlation is yet another reason to "implement the Kyoto Protocol and to cut the production of greenhouse gases," Clinton said.

"Despite the recent delays, I still believe that we will get a good agreement, said Clinton, referring to the failed climate summit held last week in The Hague, Netherlands. "The stakes are too high to let this imperative slip away."

Joining Clinton at today's event was Tammy Leilani Harp, a native Hawaiian islander who was raised as a shoreline gatherer. Harp thanked Clinton for creating the new reserve, which will include provisions for the continuation of noncommercial subsistence, cultural and religious activities.

"The mentality of today's people needs to stop," said Harp. "In order to perpetuate true sustainability, we need to afford better protection and management of the ocean and marine resources."

The establishment of the new reserve was also applauded by the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC), a nonprofit environmental group based in Washington, DC. Over the course of the past few years, the CMC has worked to acquire strong and permanent protections for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

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Butterfly fish share the reef ecosystem with marine mammals, invertebrates and 266 other species of fish.
"The President's actions today provide a framework for the people of Hawaii and this nation to protect and conserve our nation's preeminent coral reef system," said CMC president Roger Rufe. "Our ultimate hope is that one hundred years from now, our children's children will look at the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and see an intact functioning ecosystem with abundant fish and healthy monk seals frolicking in seas, albatross and other sea birds flying overhead and beautiful myriad fish swimming in and around the brighly colored coral reefs."

Still, the protections announced today did not go far enough, said Dr. David Guggenheim, the group's vice president for conservation policy. The CMC has recommended that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands be protected as a National Monument, which would have provided stronger and more permanent protections, Guggenheim said.

"While we would have preferred monument status, the fact that we didn't get it did not cause us to withdraw our support," Guggenheim said. "There's also a potential benefit to the outcome announced today, because this pushes NOAA and the Department of Commerce into a stepped up conservation role, and that could serve as a valuable precedent for other areas."

Environmentalists have stepped up pressure on Clinton to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a National Monument before he leaves office next month. Texas Governor George W. Bush, the Republican candidate in the still undecided race for the White House, has advocated opening up the refuge to oil exploration.

Clinton's announcement of the Hawaiian Reserve today launches a 30 day period during which the public may submit written comments on the proposed conservation measures.

For more information on the proposal or to comment on it, log on to http://www.hawaiireef.noaa.gov.