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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Recognition sought for marsh

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

KAILUA — Hawai'i's largest freshwater wetland could gain international recognition, assuring its future as an untainted natural resource and bringing status, expertise and resources to the state.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawai'i's Thousand Friends and the National Audubon Society will request that Kawai Nui and Hamakua marshes in Kailua be placed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

The designation comes at no cost, carries no constraints and does not increase bureaucracy, said Muriel Seto, a committee chairwoman and adviser to Hawai'i Thousand Friends.

Seto has been lobbying community groups to support the initiative for a little more than 1,000 acres. She has won approval from the Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club, Kawai Nui Heritage Foundation and 'Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi.

Seto will address the Kailua Neighborhood Board at a 7 p.m. meeting tomorrow (Thursday) in the Kailua District Park Multipurpose Room.

"If we can get that designation that Kawai Nui is a wetland of international importance, we will make a real dent in attitude," said Seto, who has been working for 35 years to save, preserve and restore the marsh.

Since the mid-1960s, residents have fought off shopping center and housing development in the marsh, eventually leading the city and state to take over. The oldest Hawaiian settlements on O'ahu once were located in the marsh, which has more than 22 archeological sites, including heiau, taro loi and home sites.

Countries that adhere to The Convention of Wetlands commit to designating at least one site to the list and ensuring the maintenance of its ecological character.

The United States has 18 of the 1,198 sites worldwide. About 133 countries are members who have adopted the Convention on Wetlands created in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. The United States joined in 1987.

"This will be another feather in our cap in terms of awareness," said marshes manager David Smith, O'ahu Wildlife Manager for the DLNR. "It'll be a good yardstick to measure yourself objectively against other program areas."

Smith, Seto and Eric Gilman of the National Audubon Society collaborated on the request.

It must be approved by the landowners — DLNR and the city — and then sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which conducts a review and makes the final decision, said Gilman, also chairman for the Society of Wetland Scientists International Committee that implements Ramsar sites with the Ramsar Bureau.

Benefits of designation include access to technical expertise from the Ramsar Bureau and international partners and regional collaboration among members, Gilman said.

"The U.S. government would formally recognize the existing value of the international wetland, which might justify more technical and financial assistance," he said. "An international recognition provides an added level of protection."

The Kawai Nui wetland is degraded, and has problems with invasive plants and predators that have hurt its capacity to support water birds, Gilman said.

Other Ramsar sites have improved after designation, Seto said, because decision-makers and landowners buy into the importance of improving the sites.

At Kawai Nui, changes could include restoring the estuary to improve fishing, Seto said.

"If we can improve the quality and number of fish, we benefit industry," she said. "If we open the waters, we could have up to 5,000 birds."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.