The board responsible for managing natural resources for the state of Hawai’i (US) has approved a proposal to designate a no-take marine reserve in all state waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, or NWHI. Boundaries of the proposed 2645-km2 NWHI State Marine Refuge would extend three nautical miles from the islands and atolls of the archipelago (excluding Midway Atoll, which is a national wildlife refuge and not part of the state). Nearly all extractive activity, including commercial and recreational fishing, would be banned. The exception: allowance of traditional practices of Native Hawaiians, which could include limited harvest.

For the reserve to take effect, the proposal must now receive approval from various state officials, including the state governor. Chairman Peter Young of the Board of Land and Natural Resources says he expects final approval in the coming months. “We want to get this implemented as soon as possible,” he says. The proposal reflects two rounds of public hearings over three-and-a-half years. The 25,000 public comments generated by the hearings overwhelmingly favored no-take zones, says Young. An earlier state plan to designate the waters as a fishery management area – allowing some commercial fishing – was retracted due to public opposition.

NWHI waters, including those under federal jurisdiction, contain roughly 70% of all US coral reefs. The largely uninhabited NWHI archipelago stretches westward from the main Hawaiian Islands for more than 1200 miles (roughly 2000 km).

“Do no harm”

The ban on recreational fishing in the proposed refuge includes the use of catch-and-release methods. Young says this is partly due to the remoteness of the area, which would make enforcement difficult: it would be a challenge to monitor the activities of each fisherman to see whether he was releasing his catch back to the water. Nonetheless, Young expects the reserve to have little effect on current NWHI fishing activity, including commercial fishing. Although a small number of commercial vessels target bottomfish species in federal waters of the NWHI, seaward of the three-mile state boundary, there has been little commercial activity in state waters since the mid-1990s. Recreational fishing is uncommon due to the remoteness of the islands.

Under the proposed regulations, any entry into the reserve – including by Native Hawaiians, as well as scientists and educators – would require a state-issued permit to do so. Furthermore, all permitted activity must “do no harm” to the ecosystem.

Stephanie Fried, senior scientist with Environmental Defense, an NGO, applauds the “do no harm” principle established for the reserve and the willingness of officials to take a strong preservationist stand. “It takes an act of significant political courage to withdraw the flawed plan initially proposed by the state and to seek additional input from the public,” she says. Cha Smith, executive director of KAHEA, a local alliance of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and environmental activists, says the proposed rule “reflects the economics, existing law, science, Native Hawaiian rights, and broad and consistent public sentiment.”

Meanwhile, federal NWHI waters beyond the state’s marine boundary are undergoing their own management review process. These waters, designated in 2000 by former President Bill Clinton as the 340,000-km2 NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (MPA News 2:6), contain several no-take zones but allow fishing elsewhere. Under consideration for re-designation as a marine sanctuary under the nation’s National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP), the area’s regulations could be altered to be more restrictive – that is, completely no-take – or less restrictive. Young says the state is working with NMSP and other federal partners in hopes of establishing a “seamless management regime” for all NWHI waters. Legislators might also get involved: US Congressman Ed Case of Hawai’i has introduced a bill to Congress (the NWHI National Marine Refuge Act of 2005) that, if passed, would designate the entire federal reserve as a no-take area. This would create the largest no-take area in the world. The text of that bill is available in PDF format at

For more information:

Peter Young, Board of Land and Natural Resources, P. O. Box 621, Honolulu, HI 96809, USA. Tel: +1 808-587-0400; E-mail:

Stephanie Fried, Environmental Defense, P.O. Box 520, Waimanalo, HI 96795, USA. Tel: +1 808 262 7128; E-mail:

Cha Smith, KAHEA, P.O. Box 27112, Honolulu, HI 96827, USA. Tel: +1 808 524 8220; E-mail:; Web: