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New National Monument Is Largest Protected Marine Ecosystem

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the country's newest national monument, covering a 362,000 square kilometer expanse of Pacific Ocean, extending 2250 kilometers north and west of the main Hawaiian Islands. It is the largest protected marine area in the world, more than seven times larger than all 13 national marine sanctuaries combined. The waters surround a dozen uninhabited rocky outcrops, sandy shoals and coral atolls that are already protected as a national wildlife refuge.

As he announced that the new monument would receive the nation's highest form of marine environmental protection, President Bush said it is our duty to use the land and seas wisely, or sometimes, not use them at all. "We'll protect a precious natural resource. We will show our respect for the cultural and historical importance of this area, and we'll create an important place for research and learning about how we can be good stewards of our oceans and our environment."

Ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau was an invited guest at the White House proclamation ceremony June 15th. The president saw Cousteau's two-hour film, Voyage to Kure, at a special White House screening in April, and said that influenced his decision to create this monument.

"We spent six weeks exploring the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and filming above and below," Cousteau said, days after wrapping up filming there, "and it was such an enriching experience. Once you've seen these places, you know that we haven't damaged and destroyed the entire planet. There are still some sacred places, and in this case we don't have to restore it, we just have to protect it." He noted that environmental stresses have killed 25 percent of the world's corals but the cold-water reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are thriving, supporting thousands of species of rainbow-colored reef fish in a unique ecosystem.

Environmental groups are delighted with the monument designation. This is what they have hoped and worked for since 2000, when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order protecting the area as a coral reef ecosystem reserve.

"Tiny landmasses surrounded by a network of coral reef are habitat for thousands of species of fish, sea turtles, millions of sea birds and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal," explains Cha Smith, executive director of the nonprofit KAHEA: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance. It has organized support for complete protection of these waters since the ecosystem reserve was created. "It is an intact marine ecosystem," Smith points out, "which means the full complement of predators down to the smallest organism still exist in one living system."

While most of the monument will be off limits to conserve the fragile life forms, visitors will be welcome on Midway, where the United States won a pivotal World War II battle against Japan. This island - which lies at the northwestern edge of the archipelago - already has streets, buildings and an airstrip.

Native Hawaiians will be free to access the new monument for cultural activities. They will carry on what Smith explains is a long history of reverence for these ancestor islands. "The entire archipelago is considered to be the ancient elders, the parents. That's why they are extremely important culturally to the Native Hawaiian people. [The islands of] Moki-mana-mana and Nihoa have evidence of Hawaiian people who lived on these islands for up to 700 years. Native Hawaiian people will continue to access these islands for traditional and customary practices."

And, says Dan Basta, scientific research will be allowed. Basta heads the government's National Marine Sanctuary Program, which will share jurisdiction over the monument with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "I think that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, from a scientific perspective, is going to be a laboratory for the world," he predicts. "It's one of the few places on a scale where you can begin to understand how it all works. There aren't that many places left."

Sophisticated surveillance technologies developed by the Department of Homeland security will be used to monitor activities in the monument. Basta says satellites, video capture, radars, and remotely operated search aircraft will ensure that no unauthorized use takes place.

Still, he says recreational diving may be allowed -- if it's carefully controlled. "It is possible to love things to death. No matter how much people care and do not want to do things that are harmful to corals, just the sheer volume and number of people in the water has an effect."

There has been no commercial or recreational fishing in the northwestern Hawaiian islands since September, when the governor declared a 5-kilometer marine reserve around each atoll. Over the next five years, fishing will also be phased out in the waters of the monument, extending 80 kilometers out from all shores.