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Preserving America's Coral Reefs

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December 4, 2000

Preserving America's Coral Reefs

President Clinton today will announce strong, new protections for the remote and pristine coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which comprise nearly 70 percent of America's coral reefs. In an event at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., the President will issue an Executive Order establishing the 84 million-acre Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve -- the largest protected area ever created in the United States. Today's action builds on a tradition of preservation for these remote islands, atolls, and submerged lagoons -- including the 1906 designation of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge -- and brings strong protections to reefs that are home to endangered monk seals and sea turtles. In addition, the President will announce a Department of Commerce report, Discovering Earth's Final Frontier, that charts a bold course for U.S. ocean exploration in the 21st century.

Strong Protection for an Extraordinary But Fragile Habitat. On May 26, President Clinton directed the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior to develop recommendations for "strong and lasting protection for the coral reef ecosystem of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands." The 3.5 million acres of coral reefs comprise nearly 70 percent of our nation's reefs, and some of the healthiest reefs in the world. These islands and reefs have long played an important role in the history of the Pacific. Archeological evidence suggests that, more than a thousand years ago, local islanders drew sustenance from their brilliant, turquoise waters. Centuries later, Charles Darwin marveled at the wildlife there during his historic voyage around the world. And in 1942, American soldiers drew a line in the sand there, winning the Battle of Midway and changing the course of history.

In developing their recommendations, the Departments of Commerce and the Interior held public "visioning sessions" throughout Hawaii, and coordinated with state officials, Native Hawaiian groups, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the Hawaii congressional delegation. Based on the Secretaries' recommendations, today's Executive Order:

  • Establishes the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve extending along the 1,200 mile-long island chain, a total area of 99,500 square nautical miles (131,800 square statute miles), larger than Florida and Georgia combined. The reserve boundary excludes state waters, and preserves the existing Midway Atoll and Northwest Hawaiian Islands national wildlife refuges.
  • Prohibits oil, gas and mineral production, the discharge or disposal of materials, and the removal of coral throughout the reserve; and caps commercial and recreational fishing at current levels. Allows Native Hawaiian subsistence and cultural uses to continue.
  • Designates 15 "reserve preservation areas" -- encompassing some 4 million acres, or roughly five percent of the reserve -- where activities such as commercial and recreational fishing, anchoring, and collecting or touching coral will be prohibited. These areas include critical habitat for endangered monk seals. The Secretary of Commerce will seek public comment on making these preservation areas permanent.
  • Directs the Secretary of Commerce to develop a Reserve Operations Plan, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior and the Governor of Hawaii; and to begin the process of incorporating the reserve into the National Marine Sanctuary Program, a network of protected areas that safeguards special marine habitats and cultural sites in U.S. waters.
  • Directs the Commerce Secretary to establish the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Council to ensure continued input from Native Hawaiian, scientific, environmental, education, fishing, and tourism communities into the ongoing management of the reserve. Also directs the Secretary to seek public comment on the conservation measures for the reserve.

Preserving the "Rainforests of the Sea." Coral reefs are often described as the "rainforests of the sea." Although coral reefs cover less than one percent of the planet's surface, they are the world's most biologically diverse marine ecosystems. In addition, coral reefs provide food and jobs, protect communities from storms, and generate billions of dollars in revenues each year. Around the world, human activities are rapidly degrading and destroying coral reefs, threatening the survival of these valuable and ancient marine ecosystems, and the communities and economies that depend on them. Scientists at last month's International Coral Reef Symposium presented strong evidence that, without new protections, as much as half the world's remaining coral reefs could disappear within 25 years.

In June 1998, President Clinton issued an Executive Order establishing the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. Chaired by the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior, the task force has led the development and implementation of efforts to map and monitor U.S. coral reefs; research the causes of coral reef degradation; reduce and mitigate coral reef degradation from pollution, overfishing and other causes; and implement conservation strategies internationally.

Safeguarding Our Oceans and Coasts. Today's action builds on a strong record of ocean protection. President Clinton and Vice President Gore have launched new actions to safeguard our coasts from the risks of offshore oil development, strengthen marine sanctuaries, and protect dolphins and other marine mammals. And to better address the long-term challenges, the President and Vice President launched a national dialogue leading to a comprehensive strategy for strengthening federal ocean policy for the 21st century.

As part of this commitment to ocean stewardship, the President today will announce a new Department of Commerce report, Discovering Earth's Final Frontier, that charts a bold course for U.S. ocean exploration. On June 12, the President directed the Commerce Secretary to convene a panel of ocean explorers and scientists to develop recommendations. The panel chaired by Dr. Marsha McNutt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute calls for a national program in ocean exploration that is global in scope, but concentrated initially in areas under U.S. jurisdiction. It urges incentives to private industry to encourage funding of research and development of discoveries with commercial potential.

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