Wednesday, January 24, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Bush puts coral reef reserve in limbo

By Susan Roth
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Bush’s decision to suspend all of Bill Clinton’s 11th-hour executive orders has left the new Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in limbo.

Less than two days before leaving office, Clinton signed an executive order finalizing the establishment of the 84-million-acre reserve, which includes a chain of atolls and reefs 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian islands.

The new order revises one that Clinton issued Dec. 4 creating the reserve.

In response to comments on proposed restrictions, Clinton changed the rules to allow more commercial and recreational fishing throughout the reserve and in areas previously off-limits to fishing.

But Bush has blocked Clinton’s last-minute executive orders and regulations from being published in the Federal Register, which makes them official, so that the new administration can review each Clinton action and decide whether to enact it.

The plan for the Hawaiian coral reef reserve received mostly positive public support at December hearings in Hawaii and in about 8,400 comments received during a comment period, so officials believe it’s likely that Bush will approve it. But the reserve’s existence isn’t assured.

"This is standard operating procedure," said Roger B. Griffis, a spokesman with the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, which is overseeing the reserve.

"Every new administration puts holds on actions for some period of time before taking office. It helps new administrations get on their feet and look at what was done most recently," Griffis said. "We’re hoping very much that they find that this one makes a lot of sense and that they allow it to go forward."

'A no-brainer'

Leaders of Kahea, the Hawaiian environmental alliance that has backed the creation of the reserve, cried foul over Bush’s move.

"The entire international scientific community has recognized the importance of this resource," said Executive Director Cha Smith. "It’s a no-brainer."

Griffis said he considered Clinton’s last-minute changes to be significant.

The proposal initially capped commercial and recreational fishing at current levels but allowed Hawaiian subsistence and cultural uses of the area. The revisions allow greater access to some areas for recreational fishing, and they allow recreational fishermen access to some previously closed areas if they are participating in scientific studies requiring the catch and release of fish.

In response to a request from the state, Clinton allowed the boundaries of the closed areas to be set uniformly at 25 fathoms — 150 feet — from shore, rather than have different boundaries for each island. For parts of the reserve, this allows more fishing while further restricting human activity in other areas.

Griffis said this trade-off would allow better enforcement and protection of the most sensitive coral reef areas. But Smith cited it as a shortcoming of the plan. "To properly protect the reef, you need a greater buffer than 25 fathoms," she said.

In addition, the new plan allows both commercial and recreational fishing in two areas that had been off-limits: the first bank west of St. Rogatien Bank near Gardner Pinnacles and Raita Bank. Boats would be allowed in those areas for five years on an experimental basis, while federal and local scientists determined whether they were damaging the area.

Smith said she was pleased that the new plan also would specifically prevent all boats, including recreational yachts and cruise ships, from dumping effluent in the area.

"Overall, we’re very pleased," she said. "It’s very fair. It allows fishing. It prevents coral exploitation. It’s a really good place to start."

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a fishing industry group opposed to the reserve, maintains that the new plan would still close or dramatically reduce most of its fisheries and also take over its job, said senior scientist Robert Schroeder.

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