Clinton created the vast Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the largest protected area ever created in the United States, comprising nearly 70% of national reefs, by issuing an Executive Order on 4 December. The coral reefs extend over 5,500 square miles (14,000 sq km), and are some of the healthiest in the world.

Hawaii state officials, native Hawaiian groups, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the Hawaii congressional delegation were all involved in the Executive Order which:

  • establishes the reserve, larger than Florida and Georgia combined, extending along the 1,200 mile (1,900 km) island chain. It excludes state waters, and preserves the existing Midway Atoll and Northwest Hawaiian Islands national wildlife refuges;
  • prohibits oil, gas and mineral production, the discharge or disposal of materials, and the removal of coral throughout the reserve and caps commercial and recreational fishing at current levels, but allows Native Hawaiian subsistence and cultural uses to continue;
  • designates 15 ‘reserve preservation areas’, encompassing 5% of the reserve, where activities such as commercial and recreational fishing, anchoring, and collecting or touching of coral will be prohibited. These areas include critical habitat for endangered monk seals. The Secretary of Commerce will seek public comment on making these preservation areas permanent;
  • directs the Secretary of Commerce to begin incorporating the reserve into the National Marine Sanctuary Program, a network of protected areas that safeguards special marine habitats and cultural sites in US waters.

A coalition of Native Hawaiian fishermen and Hawaii-based environmental NGOs, including Environmental Defense and KAHEA, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, applauded Clinton’s plan as “bold”. “The Northwest Hawaiian Islands are a unique world treasure,” said KAHEA Director, Cha Smith.

“While we are disappointed that the President did not declare the area a national monument, we are pleased to see the President considering clear restrictions on a range of potentially damaging activities throughout the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, while providing for Native Hawaiian cultural access and allowing the current bottomfish fishery to continue,” said Environmental Defense scientist Stephanie Fried.

“As fishermen, we understand the crucial role that the Northwest Hawaiian Islands play as a nursery for our main Hawaiian Islands fisheries,” said Isaac Harp, a Native Hawaiian fisherman. “We support the protection of fisheries for today and for future generations,” he said, adding that the area is “the last safe haven for monk seals and sea turtles.”

Scientists at last month’s International Coral Reef Symposium presented strong evidence that, without new protections, as much as half of the world’s remaining coral reefs could disappear within 25 years (see related story).

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