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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, May 23, 2005

Plan for marine refuge opposed

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

U.S. Rep. Ed Case's proposal for a marine refuge around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where all fishing, lobstering and coral diving would be banned, is frustrating to federal officials who believe the area can easily handle limited use of its resources.

"Not to have fishing around islands where the resource is healthy is difficult to accept," said Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

"We're talking about 112,000 square miles of ocean and only a few boats. These boats do not harm the habitat," she said

Case, D-Hawai'i, introduced a bill last Monday that would establish a 137,000-square-mile zone of federal protection extending 50 miles from the shore of each of the islands and reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, plus an extension to cover seamounts used by Hawaiian monk seals northwest of Kure Atoll.

Most of the proposed region is similar in outline to areas being considered for a national marine sanctuary, but Case said the difference is that a sanctuary could allow some extraction of resources, while a refuge would not.

Simonds said she recognizes the attraction of a pure refuge.

"I understand where he's coming from, but I hope it doesn't happen. We in Hawai'i have always been dependent on foreign suppliers, and people think it's OK to get things from other places.

"But this means those fish resources will have to be taken from fisheries that don't have the environmental laws that we have here," she said.

A third of the state's bottom fish resources come from the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Only nine boats operate there, and the weights of the fish they are catching have been generally stable over several years.

That suggests the fishery is well managed and healthy, the fishery council says.

"We'd like to see bottom fishing continue," Simonds said.

Allen Tom, Pacific Islands Region coordinator for the National Marine Sanctuaries Program, said Case's bill could stop his agency's efforts to set up a sanctuary in the northern portion of the Hawaiian archipelago, but since the bill proposes the refuge be managed by a renamed federal sanctuaries and refuges program, the proposed sanctuary and the refuge would in many ways be similar.

When the state held public hearings on its proposal to restrict fishing in state waters around the northwestern islands, Tom said the overwhelming public sentiment was for total protection. He said Case's bill simplifies things for managing the federal waters around those islands, both by taking the fisheries issue out of play and by setting distinct boundaries for the refuge.

"Until the refuge passes, we're still going on our own track" of preparing a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed sanctuary, and taking it to public hearings at the end of the year, he said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.