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Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
Hundreds of miles northwest of the eight Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) are ten
little known, remote, and rarely visited tiny islands,
atolls and shoals that span more than 1,200 miles (1,931 km) of the
North Pacific Ocean. These are the Northwestern Hawaiian
Islands (NWHI). With coral reefs in general decline around
the populated regions of the world, the NWHI reefs provide a unique opportunity
to study and assess how coral reef ecosystems function when not affected
by major human activities.
coral reefs of the NWHI are spectacular and pristine
ecosystems covering thousands of square miles in the United States.
These coral reefs are the healthiest and most undisturbed
of the United States reefs, and unlike most other present-day coral
reefs, the NWHI reefs comprise possibly the last, large-scale, apex predator-dominated
coral reef ecosystem on Earth.
The NWHI coral reefs and associated habitats harbor more than 7,000
species that include corals and other invertebrate animals, algae, plants,
fishes, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. Many of these species are rare, threatened,
or endangered; many are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth; and many more
remain unidentified or even undiscovered to science.
A chart depicting the distribution of the Estimated 36,813 sq km of Potential shallow-water Coral Ecosystems in U.S. Tropical and Subtropical Waters. (Ref. 13
Rohmann etal. , 2005)
Research and surveys from several scientific expeditions
to the NWHI over the past five to six years, have shown
the coral reefs to be in good to excellent condition. The corals
were healthier and more vigorous than expected. In some areas,
the abundance and number of species of stony coral were much
higher, even double, than researchers had been led to believe
from previous literature (Ref. 7). Some single coral colonies
were found to be very old, indicating long-term stability
of the ecosystem. Coral scientists also observed the presence
of a wide variety of unique growth forms which are uncommon
in MHI. Also, some rare species of
coral in the main islands are abundant in the NWHI. From
a fisheries' perspective, the most important finding was the
abundance of large apex predators, such as sharks and jacks,
compared to the MHI. Not surprisingly,
unique and specialized habitats in some areas harbored undescribed,
and possibly endemic, species of sponge. Initial surveys
found no invasive marine invertebrates in the NWHI except
in the inhabited Midway Atoll. This is in dramatic contrast
to the MHI where many marine invertebrates
have been introduced via shipping traffic. However, terrestrial
alien insects were found on all islands, and terrestrial
alien plants were found on all islands except Gardner Pinnacles.
Scientists noted an uneven distribution of corals, fishes and
marine plants across the NWHI. For example, there seemed
to be a higher number of gray sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhinos) in the southern NWHI,
whereas Galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) were
more abundant in the north. There were marked differences
in percentages of coral cover and kinds of species between
the basaltic volcanic islands and the carbonate atolls.
A Presidential Order in the year 2000
designated nearly 100,000 square nautical miles (342,990 km2) in the
NWHI area as a marine reserve, restricting both commercial and
recreational fishing. The islands, shoals, atolls and reefs
in this reserve is the largest nature preserve ever established in the
United States and the second largest marine protected area in the world
(after the Australian Great Barrier Reef). Limiting fishing has
helped this ecosystem thrive, but it's still not immune from outside
National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) has begun the process
to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef
Ecosystem Reserve (Reserve) as a National Marine Sanctuary under the
National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA).
On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument. On March 2, 2007, First Lady Laura Bush joined Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle in announcing a new Hawaiian name for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. The name is Papahanaumokuakea, which refers to Hawaiian genealogy and the formation of the Hawaiian archipelago. The name was adopted through consultation with the Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group.
This national monument will enable nearly 140,000 square miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to receive our Nation's highest form of marine environmental protection. The monument is managed by the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in close coordination with the State of Hawaii.
The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument will:
- Preserve access for Native Hawaiian cultural activities;
- Provide for carefully regulated educational and scientific activities;
- Enhance visitation in a special area around Midway Island;
- Prohibit unauthorized access to the monument;
- Phase out commercial fishing over a five-year period; and
- Ban other types of resource extraction and dumping of waste
This characterization of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands touches upon the geography, cultural history, comparative biology, and conservation efforts to preserve the area. Recent scientific expeditions and methods of data capture are described, along with summary descriptions of individual islands, atolls, shoals, and banks. Links are provided to metadata and data catalogued with the NOAA Coral Reef Information System (CoRIS)
The final statement is a 2005 assessment of the status and health of the coral reef ecosystem of the NWHI.
Quicktime Movie Slideshow of images taken in the NWHI during the 2002 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (NOWRAMP) expedition. Images taken by professional wildlife photographer, James Watt. (39 MB, requires Apple QuickTime free viewer)