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By Jan TenBruggencate Advertiser Staff Writer

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (September 28, 2000 – Honolulu Advertiser)---The 58-year-old steel plates that hold Tern Island at French Frigate Shoals together are collapsing and have become a threat to wildlife.

Biologists repeatedly have had to intervene to free seals, birds and other wildlife trapped by jagged, rusted plates.

Sometimes they don’t find the animals soon enough.

"Monk seals, turtles, seabirds and even octopus are subject to starvation, dehydration or being impaled when they become caught between the wall and the eroding beach," said Tony Palermo, acting refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at French Frigate Shoals.

Palermo and service biologist Beth Flint Monday (September 25) saved a seal pup that had been trapped behind one of the steel plates.

There is an $8 million federal appropriation to rebuild the wall. Although work will not start until summer, some site preparation could begin as early as next month (October).

Tern Island was converted from a six-acre sandbar in 1942 into a rectangular patch of coral with a 3,000-foot runway, providing the military with a mid-Pacific strip from which to conduct air surveillance missions and on which military planes could refuel during long trans-Pacific flights.

The 50th Naval Construction Battalion, the Seabees, built the island by erecting what resembles a giant sandbox, its sides built out of sheet-steel pilings driven into the atoll’s coral and sand. They filled it with dredged coral debris from a channel cut through the French Frigate Shoal reef to provide ship access to the end of the island.

When the work was done, the old sandbar had been nearly doubled in length. On one side of the runway, a wider area was created to accommodate buildings, fuel tanks and other structures. From the air, the island looks like a giant coral-colored aircraft carrier.

For the past two to three decades, the interlocking steel plates have been breaking down, and the coral fill that creates Tern Island has been washing out through the rusted breaks. Turtles and seals that haul up on the shore sometimes have crawled through holes in the wall and become trapped. Other animals, like birds, can fall into the holes or become trapped between the interlocking plates.

"Because they often can’t find their way out when the tide changes and recedes, these animals often die in the sun," Palermo said.

The rebuilding of the seawall that keeps Tern Island together is expected to take two years. Biologists will attempt to keep disturbance of the animals there to a minimum.

The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to keep the island operational because of its value as a monitoring station for wildlife on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The service had considered abandoning the seawall, thus giving up the airstrip, but concluded it would be too difficult to conduct needed biological studies without air access.

Tern, about 400 miles from Kaua’i has the only landing field on the 1,200-mile flight to Midway Atoll. It sits roughly halfway between O’ahu and Midway.

Concrete buildings and water-catchment facilities remain from the island’s use by the Coast Guard as a navigation aid station through 1979. A small Fish and Wildlife Service crew has remained on the island since then.

"In order to fully understand the biology and ecology of both migratory and resident tropical animals, year-round data collection is crucial," Flint said.

"Some seabirds live as long as 50 years. To try and understand them and their behavior fully, it is important not only to have year-round data, but to also have data that spans over decades for comparison," Flint said.

Flint is part of a major scientific expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to map for the first time the reefs of the islands.

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser.

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