Environmental enforcers of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael De Nyse

When people think of Hawaii, some think of pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters and tropical marine life. What some might not realize is the important role the U.S. Coast Guard has protecting 12.2 million square miles of Hawaiian waters and everything living in it.

America’s waters and their ecosystems are essential to the health, well being and economy of the nation. The Coast Guard’s role in carrying out the nation’s mandates to protect the marine environment is of vital importance, especially in the Fourteenth District, headquartered in Honolulu.

In 1976, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which allowed for the creation of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Generally, a state’s EEZ starts at the coastal baseline and extends 200 nautical miles out into the sea, perpendicular to the baseline. Within the EEZ, the coastal state has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving, and managing natural resources. The EEZ overlaps both the contiguous zone and territorial waters. In the years that followed this important legislative act, international fisheries agreements went even further, extending U.S. jurisdiction areas beyond the EEZ.

On June 15, 2006, President Bush signed a proclamation that created the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument (re-named the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on March 2, 2007). It is one of the world’s largest fully-protected marine conservation areas. The monument is jointly managed by the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii.

The monument includes all waters within 50 miles of the islands, reefs and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The area includes the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge/Battle of Midway National Memorial, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands State Marine Refuge, the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, and Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Papahanaumokuakea holds great cultural and spiritual significance for native Hawaiians,” said Keely Belva, constituent outreach associate for NOAA. “Distinct geology, biology and history make the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands one of the world’s greatest treasures.”

These remote environments offer a rare glimpse of a thriving, intact ecosystem. The monument provides a home for hundreds of unique marine species, endangered Hawaiian monk seals and land birds, millions of seabirds, and plant species found nowhere else on Earth, said Belva.

The monument also falls within Coast Guard District Fourteen’s area of responsibility.
Crews aboard cutters and aircraft conduct routine enforcement and surveillance patrols of the monument while working closely with its partner agencies in order to enforce monument regulations and all laws that regulate foreign fishing within the EEZ.

“The Coast Guard has the legal authority, capacity and skills required to identify and document illegal activity at sea,” said Lt. Jacob Cass, a former operational planning officer for District Fourteen.

“Effectively executing maritime law enforcement requires training, planning, seamanship and close coordination with our local, state, federal and international partners,” said Cass. “We are deeply committed to good stewardship of the ocean and protecting the rich and fragile ecosystems of this unique part of the world. Aggressive enforcement of a wide variety of regulations designed to protect vital marine ecosystems is an important aspect of this commitment.”

The Coast Guard’s role in protecting the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is not limited to law enforcement. Coast Guard crewmembers contribute an active part in the preservation and clean up as well, routinely performing missions such as marine debris recovery.

In June, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Walnut, a 225-foot buoy tender homeported in Honolulu, partnered with NOAA and the University of Hawaii during an 18-day multi-agency debris removal effort near Papahanaumokuakea.

The crew of the Walnut and agency partners recovered more than 28 tons of marine debris from the monument during the 2,900-mile trip to Maro Reef and Midway Atoll. The crew removed the marine debris using the ships’ crane, lift bags and divers.

More than 510 metric tons of debris has been removed from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands since 1996, according to Fourteenth Coast Guard District statistics.

The maritime area of responsibility for the Coast Guard in the Pacific covers 1.5 million square miles of EEZ areas, eight time zones, and 14,000 miles of international boundary line, all of which is threatened by more than 1,200 foreign fishing vessels each day.

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