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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 29, 2006

Natural treasures require guarding

 •  15-foot tiger shark gets mouthful of boat

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Diver Jill Zamzow photographs a massive school of ulua at Rapture Reef at French Frigate Shoals. Such large groupings of these predators are rare in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Luiz Rocha

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ABOARD HI'IALAKAI To see the green clouds reflecting a lagoon's aqua waters.

To watch the sky fill with terns and boobies, frigate birds and albatross over tiny islands.

To view clouds of fish over a majestic table coral reef, and down in the living rock to observe intricate crabs and worms and shrimps and colored corals and sponges.

See all this, and it seems inescapable that these Northwestern Hawaiian Islands require a special kind of protection.

They already have significant protection provided by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.

Hawai'i is actively discussing the conversion of the coral reef reserve into one of the nation's national marine sanctuaries. A draft environmental impact statement reviewing alternatives for managing such a sanctuary is expected to be released in June.

Dan Basta, director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program, said understanding a place like the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands may be key to managing marine resources around the world.

"I think most people don't fully appreciate the significance and the value of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to the nation and to all those on this planet who are concerned about marine conservation. This is one of those few places on earth that is as close to a pristine apex predator environment that exists," Basta said, referring to the unique ecosystem in the islands in which predators like ulua, sharks and snappers make up a major part of the biomass on the reefs. On most reefs, those animals have long since been fished down significantly in numbers.

There have been widely different suggestions for the management of these 10 islands, atolls, shoals and reefs.

The liberal end includes sustainable commercial fishing, ecotour operations, extensive scientific and cultural access actively using the resources in a way that doesn't significantly degrade them. At the conservative end is the argument for entirely closing the doors no fishing, no public or regular scientific access.

Scientists on this 25-day research voyage aboard the Hi'ialakai, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel, have just about as wide a range of views as does the general public.

All agree on one thing: Scientific access needs to continue, if only to monitor the sanctuary, to watch for problems and to learn things that can be applied to protecting the ecosystems around the main Hawaiian Islands as well as marine areas around the world.

The scientists cited here, all of whom work for the University of Hawai'i's Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, or HIMB, unless otherwise noted, said they were speaking for themselves, not their institution.

One problem with restricting all access to the islands is the assumption that this will protect them. They will not be isolated from climate change, dumping by passing ships, marine debris and natural biological invasions, said population geneticist Steve Karl, who is working on corals.

"Without an understanding of how the reef works, we'll be unprepared for any emergency in the future," Karl said.

Scott Godwin, a marine invertebrate zoologist with Bishop Museum and HIMB, said this voyage is and should be the last in which significant numbers of fish, crabs and other creatures are killed, but he said monitoring must continue.

"This is kind of a one-time shot. After this, we don't need this level of collections," he said. The takings are needed for genetic studies and samples that other scientists will be able to use for years.

"Some of the tiny coral samples will be used five or six times, and the remnants will be used for a tissue bank, so we don't have to continue collecting in the future," Godwin said.

Godwin does not support commercial fishing but thinks controlled cultural collecting by Native Hawaiians can be consistent with a reserve. He disapproves of any tourism, even controlled ecotourism. "I don't see how they can make it low impact," he said.

Brazilian fish geneticist Luiz Rocha and German marine biologist Iliana Baums both suggested the sanctuary be zoned, allowing certain uses such as tourism in specific areas, but no fishing or other extractions of any kind.

"What's the point of having a place like that and having nobody ever see it? It's like buying the most expensive clothes, hanging them in the closet and never using them," Rocha said.

Said Baums: "People need to understand the place in order to want to preserve it."

Shark migration researcher Carl Meyer said that human recreational visits don't need to be banned to protect the reef, but that there are good and bad ways to conduct ecotourism.

Some scientists feel it's too soon to make final decisions about how the region should be managed that some key questions about the biology of the place are being studied on this trip, and answers are not yet available.

Basta said some details in how the sanctuary would be managed need to be worked out, but that the decision to preserve the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is crucial. "Ultimately, it is a national statement by our country to declare this place as a special place for protection," he said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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