Delegation Gets First-Hand Look at Diverse Creatures, Honolulu Advertiser.Com, 12/15/05
By Tara Godvin
Article Source: Honolulu Advertiser.Com
MIDWAY ATOLL — The air of this former military base is filled with birds' twittering, clacking, whistling and throaty sighs sounding like a bullfrog's call. The nests of albatrosses seem to cover every inch of open space on Midway Atoll.
Home to only a handful of voting residents but teeming with delicate and often endangered species on the land and in the surrounding ocean, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands received a visit from Gov. Linda Lingle and a group of 13 other state and federal officials on Monday and Tuesday.
The trip was part of a push by Lingle to establish a sanctuary in the federal waters surrounding the islands and to keep Hawai'i involved in the decision-making process.
In September, Lingle signed new rules banning fishing in the islands' state waters, which extend three miles out from the rocky, tiny islands dotting an isolated 1,200-mile stretch of ocean northwest of Kaua'i.
Lingle has been pushing for a similar ban for federal waters, which are protected as a coral-reef ecosystem reserve and are in the process of becoming the nation's 14th marine sanctuary.
The islands themselves are already designated U.S. wildlife refuges — one for the nine islands and atolls that fall within Hawai'i borders and another for Midway Atoll, which is a federal possession.
During a swooping plane ride passing over several of the smaller islands and an overnight visit to Midway, officials who will have a hand in what management rules are put in place at the nascent sanctuary got first-hand experience of the astounding numbers of the area's creatures.
"Until you come out and see it, you cannot imagine the geographic extent," said Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
And much of that geography is below the surface of the ocean, he said.
A peek over the edge of a pier at Midway quickly put a look of gape-jawed shock on the face of State Sen. Fred Hemmings, whose district encompasses the remote islands and who has been an advocate of their strict protection.
"That is unbelievable!" said Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai).
Swimming calmly below in the shallows was a school of hundreds of silvery moi, each about three times bigger than any found in the waters surrounding the main Hawaiian islands.
"I think the fishermen in Hawai'i would cry if they saw this," Hemmings said.
Handed over by the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996, Midway marks where American dive bombers and fighter pilots turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific by fending off the Japanese naval fleet's attempt to secure the atoll.
Today, both the sea and the skies are teeming with life.
Snorkelers on the trip, including Lingle, discovered a reef crowded with swarms of different flitting fish.
About six endangered Hawaiian monk seals lazed in the surf on the atoll's Sand Island on Tuesday. One young male, scratched his eye with a flipper, rubbed his bottom flippers together and then sneezed before falling asleep again, totally unaware of his observers.
"It really is an exciting time — to get people feeling good, talking to each other, going to this place, seeing it and going home not only with the experience of the place, but a commitment to do something about it," said Peter Young, chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Young said his 2003 trip to the area's Tern Island was critical to his decision to put strict protections on state waters surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The islands must be experienced to understand how intensely populated with creatures they are, he said.
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve: http://hawaiireef.noaa.gov
Source: Associated Press