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By Curtis Lum Advertiser Staff Writer

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (December 12, 2000 – The Honolulu Advertiser)---Commercial fishermen and environmentalists squared off last night over President Clinton’s proposal to create the nearly 100,000-square-mile Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.

On one side were the fishermen, who said the reserve status would jeopardize their livelihoods by permanently closing off prime fishing areas. But environmentalists and Native Hawaiians said the coral reefs and other marine life in that area need government protection or may suffer permanent damage.

Those arguments were made at a public hearing to gather information on Clinton’s executive order to create the reserve. Clinton proposes to cap commercial and recreational fishing at current levels, but allow Native Hawaiian subsistence and cultural uses of the reserve, which extends 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.

The area accounts for 70 percent of the coral reefs in the United States and is home to the Hawaiian monk seal, sea turtles and nesting birds.

Last night’s hearing at the Ala Moana Hotel was one of six set for Hawai‘i this week. After a 30-day comment period, the Clinton administration will determine whether to close about 5 percent of the reserve permanently.

Whatever decision is made, it will not be a popular one. More than 80 people signed up to speak last night, and some were brought to tears when testifying.

Marion Kelly said those who do not support the reserve are putting economics before the environment. Kelly said she went with her father on fishing trips to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as a child and knows the area.

"The economy that we live in today destroys. It doesn’t give a damn about preservation," she said. "Now is the time for the ultimate preservation of these fragile islands."

Sunny Greer of Kahana agreed and said the president’s executive order will preserve the area for generations of Hawaiians to come.

"When are we going to let our basic survival needs take precedence over current and future economic greed?" Greer said. "This executive order will help feed not only our ‘ohana’ today, but it will also provide for our children and our children’s children."

Louis Buzzy Agard fished in the proposed reserve in the 1940s and 1950s, and he described it as a fragile environment that serves as a refuge for wildlife. He said if the area isn’t protected, it will suffer a fate similar to the main Hawaiian Islands where, he said, fish stock is sparse.

But Bobby Gomes argued that he and other commercial fishermen do care about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands’ ecosystem, and he described the fishery there as solid.

"I feed my family," Gomes said. "I feed all my ohana. There’s no way I can fish that area out in my lifetime."

"As Hawaiians, we conserve, we preserve and we never fish the same place," says Gomes’ wife, Sharane. "It’s in our best interest to do that, if we are to survive."

Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, said Clinton’s order would usurp the council’s authority to set fishing policies for the area.

"The president, in the few short weeks that remain in his administration, has rushed to produce an executive order that contains unnecessary, unsupportable -- and quite possibly unlawful -- restrictions on the freedom of commercial and recreational fishermen."

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

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