On May 16, 2005, Hawaii Congressman Ed Case introduced a bill into Congress entitled "The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Marine Refuge Act", HR 2376. The bill would establish the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) as the largest marine protected area in the world. It would also establish the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Refuges, giving the National Ocean Service a much-needed tool to safeguard large marine areas with much higher levels of protection than is possible under the current National Marine Sanctuaries Act. The text of the bill, as well as Ed Case's speech to Congress, can be found on his website

Establishing the NWHI as a national marine refuge would grant protection not otherwise possible to this rare, special, and important area. The NWHI are the most isolated coral reefs in the world, with the highest proportion of marine endemic species and unique natural and cultural resources. They stretch over 1200 miles to the Darwin point at Kure Atoll in whose cold waters coral growth is so slow it can barely keep up with the natural subsidence of the atoll.

The living coral reef colonies of the NWHI, a spectacular underwater landscape covering thousands of square miles, are some of the healthiest and most undisturbed coral reefs remaining on the planet. Except for a few isolated spots in the far north global warming has not yet impacted the NWHI, alien species are still few, and destructive fishing practices have almost ceased. The entire range of marine life originally found in the main islands is still largely intact.

Human access presents many dangers to these near pristine ecosystems. Boats transport alien aquatic species to the area and already twelve invasive marine invertebrate, fish and algal species have become established on NWHI reefs. Eighty percent of all invasive aquatic species are spread by vessel hulls that have become fouled. At the present time the hulls of all NOAA vessels are inspected for encrusting organisms, but private vessels contaminated with alien species continue to travel to the NWHI. Lost fishing gear and other marine debris also spread alien species as well as ghost fish and ensnare endangered species. At least two fishing vessels have run aground and damaged Kure Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Reef in recent years, and cruise vessels have the potential of polluting the area.

Setting aside the waters of the NWHI as a national marine refuge would preserve in perpetuity their unique, fragile and diverse ecosystems, habitats and communities of flora and fauna, as well as areas of traditional Hawaiian cultural significance. National marine refuge status would provide additional safeguards for Native Hawaiian cultural sites and provide a protective buffer around the federal Hawaii National Wildlife Refuge, safeguarding the foraging grounds of the monk seal, the nesting green sea turtle and the multitude of seabirds that make the Wildlife Refuge their home.

Designating the waters of the NWHI as a national marine refuge would also preserve valuable nursery and spawning grounds of many species of fish and invertebrates and may help replenish some depleted populations in the main Hawaiian Islands. Demonstrated benefits of large marine refuges include:

  • Long-lasting and often rapid increases in abundance, diversity, and productivity of fish populations both inside and outside the protected areas;
  • Increase in fish size and reproductive output within the refuges;
  • Sites for collecting valuable fishery-independent data;
  • Increase in size and abundance of harvested species in areas adjacent to refuges, also known as spill-over;
  • Balanced, healthy ecosystems characterized by decreased mortality, decreased habitat destruction, and decreased extinction; and
  • Ecosystem protection against catastrophic events.

A panel of the National Academy of Public Administration recently undertook a review of the National Marine Sanctuaries Program and concluded that sanctuaries should take more steps to protect marine resources within their boundaries. The bill would give the National Marine Sanctuaries Program, which has a multiple-use focus, a new tool to implement the recommendation.

The world's coral reefs, considered the rain forests of the sea, are in serious decline due to global warming, destructive fishing practices, invasive species, irresponsible tourism, and a multitude of other factors. The protection and preservation of the vast, isolated, and almost undisturbed reefs in the NWHI is vital in the global campaign to preserve coral reef biodiversity. The NWHI National Marine Refuge Act could also help advance the designation of the area as an internationally-recognized World Heritage Site.

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