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New designation of Hawaiian waters stirs controversy

Fishing will be limited in huge national monument

By Marsha Walton
CNN

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

Hawaii
Fishing Industry
Monuments and Heritage Sites
Natural Resources (general)

(CNN) -- It is a monument like no other -- 1,400 miles long and 100 miles wide.

And it is home to more than 7,000 marine species, from sharks and whales to monk seals, green sea turtles, and gold and black corals.

The vast stretch of ocean and archipelago known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands has become the 75th national monument in the United States, securing strong and immediate ecological protections from the federal government.

President George Bush announced the designation Thursday in a White House ceremony.

"To put this area in context, this national monument is more than 100 times larger than Yosemite Park," Bush said. "It's larger than 46 of our 50 states, and more than seven times larger than all our national marine sanctuaries combined. This is a big deal."

It is definitely a big deal to many native Hawaiians who have worked to protect the marine ecosystem.

"This is our treasure," said Naomi Sodetani, communications specialist with the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.

"The area is still healthy, relatively healthy, the challenge is to keep it healthy," said Sodetani.

She says the area is so remote, it is often a case of "out of sight, out of mind." But she says many factors impact the long-term health of the region, from climate change to marine debris.

The president's power to designate this high level of protection comes from the 1906 National Antiquities Act. That measure allows the president to create national monuments to preserve important cultural and geological sites.

Some people were shocked by the immediate, and permanent protections of the area, which will come primarily from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Everybody in the conservation community was surprised. This was not expected," said Dr. Dennis Heinemann, senior scientist for the Ocean Conservancy.

Many had expected the waters would gain a lower level of protection from the National Marine Sanctuary Act, which is open to public comment and challenges from members of Congress. That process already had gone on for five years and could have continued for another full year.

"This is huge. This is an incredibly bold stroke by this president," said Dan Basta, director of NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program.

"This is not something I expected," he said. "It's unknown territory and a tremendous driver to conservationists everywhere in the world that we can get serious about global scale problems."

Fishing concerns

The monument designation is not being welcomed by everyone in Hawaii. One consequence of the president's declaration is that within five years fishing in the area must cease.

"For us, we would like to see the small bottomfish fisheries continue there; it's been going on for 30 years or more," said Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

"It's a good political move for the president, this is going all over the world," Simonds said. She said the council has proven that well-regulated fisheries and a sound ecosystem can coexist.

Currently there are only eight fishing permits allowed in NWHI. "Eight doesn't sound like it could harm anything," said the Ocean Conservancy's Heinemann.

But he said a comprehensive look at fishing populations there over the past 15 years, using statistics from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, shows the area has been overfished in 11 of the 16 years from 1988 to 2003, even with a relatively small number of commercial fishermen.

"Fish populations don't respond instantaneously; there's a time lag in the process," Heinemann said. "These tend to be long-lived fish. It may take many years or a couple of decades to recover from being overfished."

That analysis was published last year by the Ocean Conservancy and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

Timm Timoney and her husband hold one of the fishing permits. They have been fishing for seabass and snapper in NWHI since 1983.

"We fish mostly in 50 fathoms and deeper. We never anchor on live coral, actually we are usually miles away from a reef," Timm Timoney said by e-mail to CNN.

"The National Marine Fisheries Service should be holding this fishery up as the poster child of sustainable fisheries. We have almost zero bycatch and about the same amount of interactions with protected species. We supply local folks and visitors with quality seafood," she wrote. "I believe Hawaii will be missing out on a part of local traditions if fishing is banned in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands."

NOAA will have primary responsibility for the preservation of the coral reefs, uninhabited islands, and seamounts, which are underwater mountains.

"It's the single largest act of ocean conservation in history," said Conrad Lautenbacher, NOAA administrator. "It's a large milestone."

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