Congressman Proposes Largest Marine Refuge

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Congressman Ed Case, a Hawaii Democrat, Monday introduced legislation that would create “the largest marine protected area in our world” in the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The area Case wishes to protect stretches across 1,200 miles of the Pacific Ocean from Nihoa Island to Kure Atoll, an area larger than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, currently the world’s largest protected area.

“This initiative will provide the highest possible level of federal protection to an incredibly special area of U.S. waters that is home to 70 percent of our nation’s coral reefs and some 7,000 species-up to half of them endemic to the area and found nowhere else on Earth,” said Case, whose congressional district includes the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

“My proposal, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Marine Refuge Act of 2005, would cover 137,000 square miles of our country’s reefs, banks, seamounts and oceans, eclipsing Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Protected Area of 125,000 square miles,” Case said.

“Virtually all activities in the Refuge, generally from land to 50 miles out to sea, would be by permit only. Permitted activities would include scientific research, but would prohibit commercial fishing and other extractive practices except in very narrow circumstances. Existing commercial fishing permit holders would be bought out at fair value.”

Case’s bill would assign management of the new refuge, the first of its kind in the country, to a new Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Refuges within the current managing entity, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Ocean Service.

The Office would manage the Refuge in cooperation with the State of Hawaii, and in consultation with an advisory council including representatives from the State of Hawaii and the Native Hawaiian, scientific and marine conservation communities.

“It is vital to note that this bill is grounded solidly in the cultural heritage and traditions of the indigenous peoples of Hawaii, our Native Hawaiians,” said Case, who specifically cited the work of Kahea: the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, among other environmental and Native Hawaiian advocacy groups. The bill provides for the continued traditional use of the refuge by Native Hawaiians for religious, cultural and sustenance purposes.

Case said the highest protection of the entire area is necessary because of growing threats posed by invasive species, marine debris, fishing and other human occupancy and extractive uses.

But beyond these basic threats, Case said that there “should be some special places in our marine world which are in fact true reserves: truly off-limits, where our marine species can live and thrive in their natural state, without the invasive, extractive hand of humankind. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is this place.”

The proposed legislation is in addition to the ongoing process to designate a slightly smaller area as a the nation’s 14th national marine sanctuary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken public comment and has been drafting an environmental impact statement due out this summer as part of the process.

In addition, the state of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Friday proposed full protection for all state waters within the area.

Case praised the DLNR’s action to establish the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Refuge in state waters, generally extending three miles out from land. “This bill would now complete the penumbra of protection for this incredible resource and truly discharge our responsibility of stewardship,” he said.