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Clinton Proclaims Yellowstone of the Sea

WASHINGTON-President Clinton announced Monday "the single largest nature preserve ever established in the United States"-an 84-million-acre (34-million-hectare) zone of pristine islands and reefs to be known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.

Making the announcement at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the National Geographic Society, Clinton said the "new, vast and wonderful Yellowstone of the Sea" covers more area than Florida and Georgia combined and encompasses nearly 70 percent of America's coral reefs

A black-footed albatross chick on the beach

Photograph by Jonathan Blair/Corbis

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"In creating this unique preserve, we're establishing the strongest level of protection for oceans ever enacted, and setting a new global standard for reef and marine wildlife protection," he said.

The president's action is the culmination of an eight-year commitment his administration has made to protecting America's natural resources.

The announcement coincided with the release by the U.S. Department of Commerce of a comprehensive report, "Discovering Earth's Final Frontier," charting the course for U.S. ocean exploration in the 21st century. Drawn up by an expert panel, the report recommends objectives and priorities and identifies key ocean sites of scientific, historic, and cultural importance.

Rainforests of the Sea

Clinton said a lot of people were most familiar with the destruction of the rainforests and worldwide efforts to save them. The rainforests of the sea, coral reefs, were not only beautiful but home to thousands of species of fish and wildlife found nowhere on Earth, he said.

"Worldwide reefs generate millions of dollars through fishing and tourism, putting food on our tables and sustaining coastal communities," Clinton said. "Coral reefs also protect these same communities from the pounding waves of fierce storms. And like the rain forests, they're providing us new hope for medical breakthroughs."

Pollution, damage from fishing, coral poachers, unwise coastal development, and global warming already have killed over 25 percent of the world's reefs, Clinton said.

"In some areas, such as the Central Indian Ocean, 90 percent of the coral reefs have died, bleached as white as dead bone."

A small portion of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands was protected by the creation of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which was declared in 1909 by President Roosevelt. Green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and other endangered species received further protection under the Endangered Species Act, which was passed in 1973.

Committed to Kyoto

Scientists at last month's International Coral Reef Symposium presented strong evidence that unless we take action now, half the world's coral reefs will disappear within 25 years, the president said.

"Recently, scientists have shown a strong correlation between global warming and the rising ocean temperatures that contribute to reef destruction.

"Recognizing the urgency of this challenge, we remain committed to reaching an international agreement to implement the Kyoto Protocol and to cut the production of greenhouse gases. And despite the recent delays, I still believe that we will get a good agreement. The stakes are too high to let this imperative slip away."

Clinton said a crossroads had been reached in the development of the natural world. "We act now, to hopefully save our seas and our reefs, so that we do not lose their beauty, their bounty and their protective qualities forever."

Public May Comment

The declaration of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve is the result of the work done by the U.S. departments of Commerce and Interior working closely with the scientific, environmental, fishing and native communities. Thousands of comments were received from concerned citizens.

According to Commerce officials there will be a 30-day period for additional comments by the public and interested parties before Clinton signs it into law before he leaves office on January 20, 2001.

Once it has been created officially, government agencies will start the process of making the reserve a formal national marine sanctuary-the ocean equivalent of a terrestrial national park such as Yellowstone. This could take years to complete.

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•  With 349 endangered species, the state of Hawaii has the highest number of plants and animals listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The new reserve is home to endangered monk seals and sea turtles.
• The green sea turtle is one of many endangered animals living in the reserve. The turtle is named for the color of its subdermal fat.
• The average Hawaiian monk seal dives over 50 times a day, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The seal, another endangered inhabitant of the new reserve, derived its name from folds of skin resembling a monk's hood.

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Northwestern Hawaii’s coral reefs particularly fit President Clinton’s billing as “the rainforests of the sea.” They are home to more than 7,000 species of marine plants and animals— more than half of which are unique to the region.

The newly created reserve, which encompasses an archipelago of islands, atolls, and seamounts stretching more than 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) northwest from Kauai, is unique not only for its populations of endangered green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and seabirds, but also for its near-pristine state of preservation. Its reefs are among the healthiest and most biologically diverse coral in the world.

In January 2000 a joint expedition between Hawaii’s Bishop Museum, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other federal, state, and non-governmental agencies, found the “coral reefs to be in excellent condition across the chain,” with corals “healthier and more vigorous than expected, ” according to a report posted on the Bishop Museum’s Web site.

During the course of the expedition, scientists recorded abundant numbers of fish, particularly large predators such as sharks, and species of crabs and sponges unique to the archipelago. In addition, the scientists discovered five completely new species of coral.

The high state of preservation is due in part to the area’s remote location. Of the more than 15 islands and atolls in the protected chain, only the islands of Midway Atoll are inhabited.