"It's a high opportunity to protect and preserve a part of the ocean which the U.S. can control and administer for the benefit of every citizen and every human being," he said. "That opportunity to me is something that I want to assist and push."
If established, the sanctuary would be five times larger than all of the existing 13 refuges combined, according to Cousteau. The sanctuary would be managed in a fashion similar to the U.S. National Park system, he said.
Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, said the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are symbolic of the resilience of nature and that Voyage to Kure will raise awareness of the need to protect them for future generations.
"If we secure this as a national treasure it will be a signal of hope that this country really cares about the ocean and that we can take measures at this pivotal point in history to turn things around," she said.
The Polynesians retreated from the islands during the 18th century, leaving them largely void of human contact until they were exploited by Western businessmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Westerners sought riches mining guano produced by an estimated 10 million nesting seabirds for use as fertilizer on the main Hawaiian Islands. They also exported millions of albatross eggs and killed thousands of seabirds for their feathers which were used in clothing and pillows. Rabbits introduced to several islands destroyed native flora and fauna.
In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt established the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, closing them to exploitation. "In the early 20th century the foresight of the U.S. was to say, 'Enough was enough,'" said Cousteau.
Until 1996, the U.S. Navy kept an active base on Midway Atoll, which served as a refueling depot for transpacific flights during World War II. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now working to restore the atoll.
Today, visits to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are restricted to scientific expeditions. Cousteau and his crew must adhere to requirements that ensure the islands remain protected. One such measure dictates that the crew wear only new clothing that has been frozen to kill any foreign substances.
Earle, the marine biologist, said that the greatest threat facing the islands today comes from commercial fishing, particularly the practice known as longlining which strings baited hooks along the ocean for distances as long as 80 miles (130 kilometers).
The lines are set to catch species such as tuna (Thunna) and swordfish (Xiphias gladius linnaeus). But the bait also attracts seabirds such as albatross (Diomedea linnaeus) which dive after the bait and end up being dragged to their deaths. This practice in the islands would be controlled as a consequence of making them a marine sanctuary, said Earle.
"Protection for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is a starting point for what must be done on a grand scale worldwide," she said.
Editor's note: Check back for more stories on this expedition.
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