Debris, climate change threaten Hawaii

A remote location and special federal protection can’t shield a new Hawaiian national monument from debris, invasive species and climate change, according to a new report.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s peer-reviewed report is aimed at providing a baseline for monitoring the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and identifying management priorities.

The 1,100-mile chain of islands in the Papahanaumokuakea monument is home to almost 70 percent of U.S. tropical near-shore corals, endangered monk seals and sea turtles. A quarter of the 7,000 or so species that live there are unique to the islands.

The report found monk seals in significant decline, with their reproductive success falling by about 60 percent over the past 50 years. NOAA said a 2006 recovery plan for the seal could reverse that decline.

President George W. Bush created the monument two years ago, establishing one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. The move won Bush rare praise from environmentalists and was followed by the designation of three additional Pacific monuments last winter.

Bush applied the highest level of protection to the Papahanaumokuakea monument, preventing all fishing and mining. But the remote location of both monuments poses some management challenges.

Past activities in the area permanently degraded part of the monument, the report says. Some beaches and reefs are deteriorating because of debris, though the report found most habitats in good condition.

The monument also faces ongoing threats from climate change, ocean acidification, rising sea surface temperatures and sea level rise.

“Global issues of concern arising outside monument boundaries, such as marine debris, ocean acidification and invasive species, degrade fragile monument living resources and habitats,” said Aulani Wilhelm, the monument superintendent.

Hawaii has one of the worst marine trash problems in the world because of its location in circular currents that send trash its way, threatening marine mammals and birds. The monument is jointly managed by NOAA and the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Bush administration’s budgets designated some cash for cleaning up the monument — but not enough to allow the agencies to do the job effectively. About 57 tons of garbage a year washes into the 140,000 square-mile island chain, and debris removal fell to 35 tons a year after the monument was designated.

Restricted human access to the monument has helped its water quality, the report says. Despite past military use that left behind contamination on the atolls, water quality remains good.