Vast Hawaii Sea Area Now a National Monument A vast chain of remote Hawaiian islands, teeming with endangered sea life, has become the nation's newest national monument -- and the largest patch of protected ocean on earth.
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Vast Hawaii Sea Area Now a National Monument

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Vast Hawaii Sea Area Now a National Monument

Vast Hawaii Sea Area Now a National Monument

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

If you're planning your summer vacations, good news from the White House today. There's a new national monument to visit, though it won't be the easiest to get to. President Bush announced the creation of a marine sanctuary, a chain of small Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the surrounding reefs and waters. Altogether, a 1,400 mile stretch in the Pacific Ocean.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: To put this area in context, this national monument is more than 100 times larger than Yosemite National Park. Larger than 46 of our 50 states. And more than seven times larger than all our national marine sanctuaries combined. It's a big deal.

NORRIS: As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, this area also provides a glimpse into the way oceans used to be.


Marine biologist Christopher Lowe knows the new monument well from countless hours on boats and diving under the surface. He says above the water the island chain in kind of bland. Most of the islands are barren sand or rock. But underwater, the coral reefs are spectacular.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER LOWE (California State University at Long Beach): It's not uncommon to see a dozen grey reef sharks or Galapagos sharks, and these sharks range from four to nine feet long. Just swimming along, watching you. Or to be surrounded by a school of 40 or 50-pound jacks.

SHOGREN: Jacks are silvery, carnivorous fish. Large jacks have been wiped out in many other parts of the world. Lowe says in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, you see underwater scenes that don't exist elsewhere because most reef ecosystems have been destroyed by too much fishing.

Dr. LOWE: It's so remarkable to see large predators doing their thing in the wild. To see a tiger shark eat a fledging albatross. It's awe inspiring to see, you know, a 13-foot shark launch out of the water to grab an albatross that's making its first flight.

SHOGREN: Lots of presidents have tried to protect this wild stretch of the Pacific. A hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt named most of the islands a wildlife refuge. Bill Clinton designated the waters around the islands as a coral reef reserve.

President Bush wants to do more. Within five years, all commercial and recreational fishing will be prohibited. That's good news for the endangered monk seals. Scientists say these creatures were devastated because fishermen caught almost all of the spiny lobsters in the region.

Dr. ELLIOTT NORSE (Marine Conservation Biology Institute): This is the most important thing that President Bush has done for the environment since he took office. I think it's one for the history books.

SHOGREN: Elliott Norse is the president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. He's usually on the opposite end of environmental debates from President Bush. But like many environmentalists, he's thrilled with the announcement. And today's decision isn't just important for the creatures. Protecting the area is especially meaningful for native Hawaiians, like Aulani Wilhelm.

Ms. AULANI WILHELM (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve): The land, the sea, the creatures, all the elements really are our ancestors. So for us, taking care of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is obvious. It's like taking care of our elder grandparents or people that have passed away. This connection is real for us.

SHOGREN: Wilhelm runs the Coral Reef Reserve for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She says it's not going to be easy for most Americans to visit this new national monument. First, you need to get a permit. Then you have to fly to Hawaii. From there it takes three days by boat to get to the nearest part of the new monument. And the seas in this part of the Pacific have a reputation for being very rough.

The only island where the tourists will be allowed is Midway. It used to be a naval airbase, so it has roads, buildings and an airstrip. Coral reef expert Donald Potts is there now. He says visitors will have to get used to the fact that creatures rule this place.

Professor DONALD POTTS (University of Queensland, Australia): We ride bicycles, one-speed bicycles, because we have to navigate between the albatross, which are nesting on all the roads and rocks everywhere. They don't move for us. We go around them.

SHOGREN: Many scientists say the fewer people who visit the new monument, the better. The reason the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are still so special is that people haven't disturbed them. The scientists hope it stays that way.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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