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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, June 3, 2004

Canoe crew ashore on Laysan's sands

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

LAYSAN ISLAND, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — Hokule'a pounded around the northern end of Laysan at sunset, its twin bows plunging into the seas, water sluicing across the deck and the crew huddled in foul-weather gear.

After their arrival on Laysan, Hokule'a crew members meet for a briefing on the ecosystem of the island, which is recovering from the ravages of guano mining, feather poaching and feral rabbits.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

The canoe slipped into an anchorage Tuesday in quieter waters on the lee side for the night. Crew members went ashore yesterday morning, after moving the canoe to a spot near shore, protected by reefs.

Before they disembarked, though, the bow of the canoe was converted into a surgery suite, to stitch up a gash on biologist Randy Kosaki's index finger, received while opening a contact lens container with a pocketknife on a rolling ship, in alternating shade and full sunlight, with wind blowing briskly.

Dr. Cherie Shehata gave him four stitches.

"My wife's going to be rolling her eyes when she hears about this," he said.

Kosaki slipped a plastic glove over his bandaged hand and prepared to join the crew ashore. He was snorkeling by afternoon.

Laysan is a beautiful sand-dune island, with white shores, a cluster of coconut palms and an interior lake that's highly salty.

It is also a story of environmental degradation and rejuvenation. Guano miners, feather poachers and an ill-fated rabbit-canning business around the turn of the century converted Laysan from a coastal forest wonderland of flowering plants and sandalwood trees into a sand-blown desert.

The rabbits were perhaps the worst. After the canning business failed, they were left to proliferate and they ate off nearly all the vegetation. Native land birds became extinct, including an orange honeycreeper closely related to the 'apapane of the main Hawaiian island forests.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is overseeing the restoration of the island—stabilizing, replanting, removing weeds and conducting the research needed to bring it back to some semblance of former glory.

"This is an example of what we need to do in the main Hawaiian islands," said captain Nainoa Thompson. "This little island is a microcosm of where we have been going. Also, it talks about where we need to go. We need to look for ways to renew, heal and give hope," Thompson said.

Hokule'a crew members carried a special set of clothes when they went ashore, and they changed into them at the waterline. Each piece of clothing had been bagged, brand new, and frozen for at least 48 hours, all to ensure that no live weeds or insects came to the island.

"One of the gravest threats to the unique Northwestern Hawaiian Islands ecosystems is the introduction of alien species," said Fish and Wildlife Service biological technician Stefan Kropidlowski.

Each camera, each watch or pair of sunglasses was inspected and wiped down.

Is it overkill?

The service has spent more than a decade eradicating one weed, which presumably arrived as one seed stuck to someone's pant leg. This common sandbur — the same one that sticks to your foot or your trousers when you walk near the shore in many parts of the main islands —began taking over habitat once held by tall clump grasses that birds use for nesting and food.

"The introduction of a grass called the common sandbur altered the natural composition of vegetation and eliminated nesting habitat for the Laysan finch, the Laysan duck and several other species of birds and insects. The Fish and Wildlife Service has spent the last 12 years combating this plant and it appears we are finally winning the battle," Kropidlowski said.

The rule for these islands, which are all wildlife refuges, is that the needs of humans are secondary.

"Wildlife comes first," said Beth Flint, wildlife biologist for the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Advertiser Science Writer Jan TenBruggencate is serving as a crewmember aboard Hokule'a on its voyage through the 1,200 miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. His dispatches are being sent back via satellite phone.