Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, 2000

Dennis Kawaharada

Westward of the main Hawaiian Islands stretches a chain of ten small islands, atolls, sand bars, shoals, and reefs. Much older than the main islands, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) are setting into the sea: beyond the last island, Kure, 1,200 miles west of Kaua‘i, are a chain of sea mounts already submerged. (Map of the NWHI)

In 1909, eight of the NWHI were declared a Bird Reservation by the U.S. government to protect nesting seabirds from slaughter by poachers from Japan (seabird feathers were once popular in hats). In 1946, the reservation was renamed the NWHI National Wildlife Refuge. In 1981, the atoll of Kure was designated a State of Hawai‘i Seabird Sanctuary. In 1988, in anticipation of the closure of a U.S. Naval Station, Midway was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge as well. Today, about ninety percent of the seabird population of Hawai‘i nests on these islands. They are also the primary breeding grounds for the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

In 2000, I visited the NWHI as a member of an education and media team attached to an ecological assessment expedition. Using computers, digital photography, and satellite phones, we sent out daily press releases, journal reports, and photos, which were posted on a Bishop Museum website. The idea for the project came from ‘Aulani Wilhelm, a public information officer for the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources. A passionate conservationist, ‘Aulani wanted the expedition to do more than produce scientific studies; she believed it should also educate the public about the issues surrounding the future of the islands, which included the possibility of designating them a National Marine Sanctuary (the marine equivalent of a national park), so that a coherent and comprehensive plan could be developed to regulate human activities there and to protect the islands and coral reefs from contamination and destruction and preserve them as much as possible in their natural state.

The research vessel Rapture departed Honolulu Harbor on an afternoon in mid-September, at the end of the hurricane season and before the start of the season of winter storms. (Below: Kaua'i behind us at sunset.)

As we approached Nihoa the next morning, signs of its abundant wildlife began to appear: schools of needle-fish swimming near the surface, small aku jumping, boobies and terns flying low over the ocean, and higher up, ‘iwa (frigate birds) soaring. As we were anchoring on the south side of the island, we saw a group of about fifteen monk seals sunning themselves on the island’s only beach – thirty yards of sand on the west side of Adam’s Bay. Another seal was swimming off the port side of the ship. The main breeding grounds of these seals are the atolls to the west, but a colony lives on Nihoa.

In the nineteenth century the seals were hunted to near extinction for their pelts and oil. After the NWHI Bird Reservation was created, the seal population recovered somewhat. (Below: Monk seals sunning, with marine debris on Mokumanamana.)

But human activities around the breeding grounds at Midway and French Frigate Shoals during World War II (airfields were built on these atolls) caused the population to fall again. After the war, the number of seals fluctuated, not recovering, so they were declared an endangered species and given protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1976. A decline in the 1980s was attributed variously to climate or environmental changes, commercial fishing, overpopulation, and mobbing of females and juveniles by males trying to mate. The population stabilized in the 1990s. Today the number of seals is estimated at 1,200-1,500.

After we anchored, the marine scientists on board went scuba diving to survey the marine flora and fauna around Nihoa. The expedition videographer, Cal Hirai, brought back some footage of a monk seal at the sea bottom just below the ship. The pup was curious and playful, a big underwater puppy swimming up to the camera and peering into it with its large eyes. It swam away a couple of times to chase off another seal, then returned to the camera. (The seals’ closest land relatives are dogs and bears, and however cute seals might appear, like their relatives, they pack a dangerous bite.)


From the sea, Nihoa looks like a jagged molar, with vertical cliffs on its east, north, and west sides; the south side slopes down to a rocky coast.

Rainwater has eroded five ravines into this slope. Except for the light green leaves of loulu palms in the central and eastern ravines, the island looked mostly brown. Access to the 170-acre island is restricted to those with landing permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Two scientists, Beth Flint and Gordon Nishida, were already on the island when we arrived, dropped off twelve days earlier by another research ship, which was traveling up the NWHI to videotape the ocean bottom in order to locate possible underwater survey sites for the marine scientists on Rapture. Beth, a bird expert with Fish and Wildlife, was there to check on the avian populations. Nihoa has two species of birds found only there: a small gray-brown and white millerbird and a yellow-headed, gray-backed finch. Gordon, with the Bishop Museum, was surveying bug populations. Several bugs are endemic to the island, including a large orange and black spider, a large cricket, and a huge katydid.

The next day, as the marine survey continued, the education team landed with Beth and Gordon at a small cove on the southern coast. The zodiac nosed up onto a rocky ledge with the gentle sea surge, and one after another, we jumped up onto the rocks. When the surge began sucking the boat backward, the captain reversed, then came back in with the next surge. The zodiac crew passed our supplies to us. In rough weather landing would be very dangerous, if not impossible.

Once on shore, we donned new clothing, shoes, and hats, frozen for forty-eight hours back home before we left in order to reduce the possibility of introducing seeds of alien species of plants, or small insects or their eggs. We also carried buckets containing a dozen or so young petrels that had landed on Rapture the night before, attracted by its lights. Beth placed the fledglings gently into rock crevices above the landing site.

Beth and Gordon told us that the native plants and birds are relatively intact on Nihoa, but there are lots of alien insects, many brought by humans before strict protocols for access were adopted in 1990. The two scientists were concerned about the effects of these alien species on the endemic flora and fauna. The environment of such a small island (190 acres) is very limited and fragile, and the small populations of endemic species are just a toehold away from extinction.


At the trail head to East Palm Valley, we spotted the millerbird. Beth estimates their number to be between 100 and 200. Before we headed up the trail, she warned us to watch where we stepped, as there were baby noddies on the ground and baby shearwaters and petrels in burrows. Stepping on a burrow might crush the babies inside. Also, if we got too close to a noddy sitting protectively on an egg or a chick, the mother might be frightened off, and without the shade of her body, the egg or chick might fry in the intense sun heat.

Plant life was more robust than it appeared from the sea; three hardy native species grew close to the ground – bunch grass, ‘ohai, and ‘ilima. As we made our way over the steep rocky ground, there were birds everywhere, flying overhead, perching on stones and low shrubs, sitting on the ground, peering out from burrows. We saw a chick emerging from an eggshell and corpses of adult birds in various states of decay. (When a bird dies, its flesh is consumed by crickets and earwigs, then its feathers and bones are weathered by the sun, rain, and wind into nutrients for plants.)

Gordon and Beth pointed out agricultural terraces on the slope above us. Between 1000 and 1500 A.D., Nihoa was inhabited by kanaka maoli. About thirty house sites, fifteen bluff shelters, fifteen sites of worship, and twenty-eight agricultural terraces have been identified on the island. Archaeologists surmise that sweet potato was grown, and the twelve to sixteen acres under cultivation might have supported about one hundred people. Various artifacts have also been collected, including fishhooks, sinkers, cowry shell lures, hammer stones, grindstones, adzes, and coral rubbing stones. The archaeological remains indicate permanent or semi-permanent settlement, as do two burial sites. Bones of adults and children were taken off the island by the Bishop Museum in 1924.

We hiked past a still usable cave shelter, with a low wall across the front, then another wall, expertly built, still standing after centuries of weathering. At East Palm Valley, atop a fifteen-foot rock cliff white with guano, amid loulu palms and ‘ilima and ‘ohai, were more walls – formerly house sites.

On top of one of the walls just behind us, two pairs of two-foot-high pointed basalt rocks were placed upright, like pairs of wings.

To the east were agricultural terraces along a steep slope, where rain run-off might have watered the crops. We saw caves toward the southeast end of the island.

While the rest of the team continued up the slope to the summit to look over the sheer cliffs on the north side of the island, I remained behind to rest under the shade of loulu palms, still weak from a bout of seasickness the day before. It was eerie – sitting near these long-abandoned sites. A human presence lingers, yet no people. A cool sea breeze was blowing up the ravine, and a squall was passing the island to the south, dropping its rain into the sea.

Why did the inhabitants of these house sites and shelters come to Nihoa? Perhaps to fish or gather bird eggs and feathers. David Malo notes that the black and gray feathers of the ‘iwa (frigate bird) were collected at this island and at Ka‘ula, a small rock island southwest of Ni‘ihau. Red feathers were particularly coveted for making sacred objects, and the ko‘ae ‘ula, or red-tailed tropic bird, nests on Nihoa. Polynesians traveled great distances to obtain red feathers or objects made from them: one Marquesan tradition tells of a 1,200-mile voyage, from Hiva Oa to Rarotonga, to obtain the red feathers of a kura bird; and the voyaging chief Hema is said to have sailed home from Hawai‘i to Tahiti to obtain a girdle of red feathers for his son Kaha‘i.

A tradition of Ni‘ihau recalls that people went to Nihoa also to collect loulu palm wood for spears and a grass called Makiukiu, which could be used for cordage and stuffing (Tava and Keale).

Why were the islands abandoned after around 1500 A.D.? Perhaps a period of drought made life too difficult to sustain on the island. According to a tradition of Ni‘ihau, a spring called Waiakanohoaka provided good, sweet water, but it hasn’t been found. Only three seeps of water are known, all contaminated with guano. The freshwater on the island comes from an estimated twenty to thirty inches of rain that falls annually from passing squalls and fronts. (By contrast, upper Månoa valley on O‘ahu gets 160 inches of rain a year; Mount Wai‘ale‘ale on Kaua‘i, the wettest spot on Earth, gets 400.)

After the others returned from their hike to the top of the island, Gordon pointed out an alien scale feeding on the leaves of the loulu palm. A ladybug alighted on my hand. ‘Aulani asked if it was a native. Gordon said no, it probably flew here from the main Hawaiian Islands. How does it survive? It feeds on other aliens like the scales, or aphids and white flies.

Back at the landing, we waited in the shade of the sea cliffs for our zodiac ride back to Rapture. Three monk seals were sunning themselves on the rocks below our perch.


About 180 miles west of Nihoa is the island of Mokumanamana, “Branching Island” or “Island of Great Spiritual Power.” We left Nihoa at night and arrived at Mokumanamana at sunrise.

As we anchored off the leeward side, the rocky bluffs of the island were stark against a sky lit up by the morning sun. Cumulus clouds and ‘iwa birds sailed toward us on the light trades above. The sea was glassy. Mokumanamana, like Nihoa, is the remnant of a volcanic rim. It is one-fourth the size of Nihoa and has little soil and no trees; five species of low shrubs cover the rocky ground in patches. There is even less groundwater here than on Nihoa.

We rode the zodiac toward West Cove, the landing site marked on the map. Large swells from a storm out past Midway were surging against the black volcanic rock. The zodiac captain decided to go around to the north side of the island and tuck into Shark Bay, which was protected from the swells. We found a rocky ledge for landing.

Beth was planning to do a quick walking survey of the bird population. Gordon wanted to collect insects, in particular, a species of beetle (Rhyncogonus biformis) found only on Mokumanamana. He planned to stay overnight on the island, alone, to collect this nocturnal beetle, which lives underground and comes out at night to feed on the leaves of a native plant called ‘aweoweo (Chenopodium oahuense). Rhyncogonus lives in very limited habitats and doesn’t fly, yet varieties appear on the other islands of the Hawaiian chain. How did it get from island to island? Possibly clinging to birds or on pieces of wood drifting in the west-flowing currents.

We climbed a steep, rocky, 240-foot-high hill. Near the top, we saw the first of an astonishing thirty-three shrines probably built by kånaka maoli who sailed out from Kaua‘i, Ni‘ihau, or Nihoa. The shrines consist of stone pavements bordered by low rows of stones, and singular upright slabs, two to three feet high, along the back. The shrines seemed to be aligned east to west, facing north. Emory called them “marae” (Tahitian for shrines) because they resembled sites he had seen in Tahiti and the Tuamotu archipelago.

The absence of house and burial sites suggests the island was not permanently inhabited. There are rock shelters around the remoter cliffs of the islands. Fragments of human bone were found and taken to the Bishop Museum in 1924. Earlier, in 1894, stone figures were collected from the island. The figures are flat and neckless, with round faces; the eyes, noses, mouths, ears, and penises protrude. The name of the god or gods worshiped have been lost, but the name of the island suggests it was thought to possess great spiritual power. Its sudden appearance in the middle of the sea and its rocky ground and soaring cliffs express this power. The numerous birds nesting and flying all over the island add to the feeling of great energy – bird life, if not human life, thrives here. My guess would be that the worship had to do with bird-gods and rain-gods (birds are metaphoric for rain clouds in chants) who bring in their cloud forms the life-giving rains from the western sea to the dry leeward coasts of the Hawaiian Islands during the season of Ho‘oilo.

‘Aulani handled the cultural protocol on the island, which included a chant and an offering of red salt at the first site. We walked around each site, having no reason to enter any.

As we hiked down a steep cliff, then up the second hill along the central ridge, the birds ignored us, only squawking and flapping their wings if we got too close to their nests.

Gordon was far ahead, going down a steep slope and up the next hill like a billy-goat, making the best of his less-than-a-day survey of the insect life. As he walked, he swung his net back and forth over plants, then sucked the insects captured into collection vials, using a vinyl tube around his neck.

By the time we got to the second hill, Gordon was at the far end of the island. We stopped to rest before heading back. It was surprising to find styrofoam floats and plastic objects (empty disposable lighters, toys, bottle caps, toothbrushes) on the ground, apparently brought for nestlings by seabirds who thought the discarded odds and ends were food floating on the ocean surface. The beaches and reefs of the NWHI are littered with tons of debris from ships, boats, and shoreline development of continents and islands thousands of miles away.

On our way back to meet the zodiac, Beth and Cal discovered a wolf spider in a crevice; Cal videoed it. ‘Aulani wanted to capture it for Gordon with a plastic bag. I thought she was nuts. Couldn’t this spider be venomous? Couldn’t it bite through a plastic bag? Luckily it escaped deeper into its hole.


Gordon’s work brought back memories of my boyhood insect collection. I don’t remember how I got the idea for the collection – perhaps from a how-to science book I borrowed from the library after one of my elementary school teachers encouraged us to make a collection for extra science credit. My father made a collection box for me: a rectangular wooden frame fitted with an old picture frame with glass and a block of styrofoam inside on which to pin my specimens. I began collecting insects and bugs, about thirty in all – monarch and cabbage butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies, and praying mantises. I included a scorpion that I found dead on the floor in our house. I avoided centipedes and spiders because of my great fear of them, even dead ones; and no cockroaches, which I thought were filthy and disgusting.

Later, in college, I developed a prejudice against science from reading Romantic poets and artists critical of the cold rationality of modern science. When I recalled my insect collection, it seemed to represent the bizarre way science relates to our fellow inhabitants of the earth. I wrote a poem titled “Order”:

The fields seemed chaotic to him –
butterflies flitting among the flowers,
bees zinging by like bullets,
dragonflies zipping at crazy angles,
grasshoppers with springy legs
leaping out of reach.

He captured them, one kind at a time,
and put them in his death chamber –
a mayonnaise jar with a paper towel
soaked with Black Flag inside.
He watched each go frenzied, then wind down
like a little toy running out of spring;
when it was still; he spread it out to dry.
Then he impaled the soft corpse,
the small tension in the pin sending
an imaginary pain through his chest.
He placed each new specimen
in line with the last:
neat rows like cars in a parking lot.

Now watching Gordon and Beth survey and monitor the populations of bugs and birds I could see the importance of their work in understanding changes in our environment and providing the data needed to argue for protection of the biological heritage and diversity of the planet – environmental science aimed at controlling the excesses of science applied to exploiting the planet’s resources.

Aboard Rapture the next morning, Gordon told us that the evening had been punctuated by rains squalls, with rain flying upward off the steep cliffs. He huddled near a rocky shelter in his rain poncho, then went out to do his nocturnal collecting. He captured the beetle he was looking for, as well as a spider and a centipede.


Our next stop was French Frigate Shoals, eighty miles to the west. As we approached the Shoals, we sighted a school of dolphins, then waves breaking, the first signs of land. The Shoals consist of a group of thirteen small islands scattered around submerged reefs and an eighteen-mile-wide lagoon. The islands are coral and sand, except for rocky La Perouse Pinnacle, a lonely remnant of the volcanic island that was once there.

On the way to the Shoals, Cal hooked a thirty-pound ono and gave it to the kitchen crew.

As we prepared to drop anchor off Disappearing Island at the southern end of the Shoals, a huge school of ulua swam past the ship. That night the captain turned on flood lights at the stern to see what sea life it would attract. A school of målolo, or flying fish, surfaced out of the darkness, and right after them, three dolphins flashed by, feeding. A couple of scientists with nets scooped the brightly lit water for plankton. One captured a thrashing, transparent ribbon of life, about six inches long and half an inch wide, with two tiny black eyes at one end – a baby eel.

The next day the dive teams began their survey of the sea life in the lagoon, which contains fields of table-top coral (acropora) not found in the main Hawaiian Islands, though common in reefs in tropical waters around the world. We snorkeled off the boat and saw large schools of ulua cruising above the table-tops. The current was relatively strong – one to two knots; you could swam and remain in the same place next to the anchored boat. Diving with his camera, Cal spotted and videoed two females and one male of the rare masked angel fish in thirty-five feet of water. These angelfish are endemic to Hawai‘i but are rarely seen above 200 feet in the main Hawaiian Islands. The males have yellow masks and fins; the females black masks. Labeled “relics,” they have no close relatives elsewhere, suggesting they have inhabited the waters of the Hawaiian Islands for a very long time.


We went ashore on Tern Island for a two-day stay with the acting refuge manager, Tony Palermo, and two interns, recent college graduates. Nadya, from the North Shore of O‘ahu, was a forest recreation and resource management major at Oregon State; and Elaine, from New Mexico, was a biology major at UC San Diego. They had signed on for four-month stays to get some experience in conservation work. The Fish and Wildlife staff occupied the former Coast Guard Station and barracks, which were built off the ground and from concrete, to withstand hurricanes, tsunamis, and storm surf.

Tern Island was very different from Nihoa and Mokumanamana. No cliffs here. The highest natural feature is a dead ironwood tree.

No ancient ruins either, though perhaps kånaka maoli had sailed out to these sand islands to gather turtles and turtle eggs, a common practice among Pacific Islanders. (The natives of Puluwat, in Micronesia, sail in the spring to the tiny, uninhabited island of Pikelot, one hundred miles to the northwest, to get turtles.)

In 1942, during World War II, the original six-acre sand spit of Tern Island was expanded to fifty-six acres to accommodate a 350-foot-wide, 3,100-foot-long aircraft runway, used for emergency landings and also to supply a station from which seaplanes flew on reconnaissance missions. After the navy left in 1946, the airstrip was used by commercial fishermen to fly their catches to Honolulu. In 1952, a Long-Range Navigation (LORAN) station operated by the Coast Guard was moved from nearby East Island to Tern Island. The station was closed down in 1979 after satellite navigation replaced LORAN. Then Fish and Wildlife took over.


Like Nihoa and Necker, Tern Island is home to frigate birds, boobies, tropic birds, terns, shearwaters, and petrels. Most of the quarter of a million birds that nest here in spring and summer were away when we landed, though the ones that had stayed behind created a constant din of screeches, squawks, clucks, and moans mingling with the sound of breaking surf. The musty odor of guano pervaded the humid air. “How’s the smell of bird shit?” I laughed. “Not as bad as human shit,” ‘Aulani replied. “Yeah, we are the ultimate pests.” And the ultimate polluters.

While marine debris has been cleaned up around the island, there is a dump from which polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in discarded electrical transformers and capacitors were leaking and leaching through the porous coral and sand into the ocean with each passing rain squall. PCBs were first manufactured commercially in 1929 by Monsanto and used as a non-conducting, insulating fluid in transformers and capacitors. PCBs, it was later discovered, cause skin ailments, reproductive disorders, liver disease, and other health problems; they are also a known animal carcinogen and a suspected human carcinogen. PCBs degrade slowly, persisting in the environment for years, and accumulate in the food chain, stored in human and animal body fats. Because of careless dumping globally, these chemicals now contaminate rivers, oceans, soils, and even the polar icecaps.

Tony and his two interns were on the island to monitor and protect the wildlife. We went to watch them band and measure a masked booby. They headed out into the intense sunlight with their measuring equipment and log and a stick that looked like a classroom pointer. Tony explained that boobies are banded at about a hundred days after birth because they can’t fly yet. After selecting a bird, he ran after it and used the stick to pin it to the ground. Then, as Nadya held the wings and feet of the bird, he measured its beak and tarsas (upper leg), stuffed it into a bag the size of a pillow case, weighed it, and banded it. Elaine recorded the measurements. When the booby was released, it ran off in a panic, flapping its wings against the ground until it settled down about 20 yards off. What is the purpose of banding these birds? Beth said that banding is done to keep track of the age distribution of bird populations so that biologists can tell whether a population is expanding or contracting. The tags let monitors know when and where a booby was tagged at one hundred days, revealing its age. Information about each bird is inputted into an international database.


French Frigate Shoals is a breeding ground for monk seals and sea turtles. An estimated ninety percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles lay their eggs here. Between 100-350 nest each year, and Tony said that the number has been steadily increasing since the turtles were given protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Turtles reach sexual maturity relatively slowly (in ten to fifty years, with an average age of twenty-five). The adults mate in the late spring and early summer, and the mothers bury their eggs in the sand, about a hundred eggs each, generally on the same beach where they themselves were born. After two months, the eggs hatch, and the baby turtles dig their way out at night (perhaps sensing the cooling of the sand). The darkness allows them to avoid predators and the sun’s heat. Once the hatchlings emerge from the nests, they are supposed to head for the ocean. A few get confused and head inland. If they don’t make it to the water, they fry in the mid-morning sun or are eaten by birds.

The high months for turtle hatchings are August and September. During our late September visit, there were large empty pits along the beach. The small percentage of turtles who survive into adulthood forage far and wide. One from French Frigate Shoals was tracked to Kåne‘ohe Bay, 600 miles away; another to Johnston Atoll, 400 miles away.

One of the jobs of the interns was to walk the runway in the morning looking for hatchlings who lost their way the night before. When we were there, they found just one, already dead from dehydration. The interns also checked for wildlife trapped between the island and the steel wall built to protect the island from the pounding surf. The wall, on the east, north, and west sides, was rusting away. The day we landed, Tony found a baby monk seal trapped behind the sea wall, so he and Beth captured it in a net, carried it over to the south side of the island, and released it on the beach facing the lagoon.

In the afternoon, the interns reported that they saw a frigate bird whose head had gotten stuck between two rusted steel plates. We went to see if we could free it, but it was dangling dead.

On a table in the recreation and dining hall were spread plans for replacing the rusting sea wall.

(I heard that when Hokule‘a stopped at Tern on a voyage up the chain to Midway in 2004, the work on the new seawall was in progress.) Tern Island represents the fate of small islands everywhere, and in a longer time frame, continents as well. Buffeted by the relentless eroding forces of wind, wave, sun, and rain, the land would eventually return to the sea. But even before erosion wore them down, some of these small islands might be awash under the rising sea level caused by global warming. Pacific Islanders on low lying atolls, anticipating the rising tides, are building walls to protect their homes while also making plans to evacuate.


The two-and-a-half-day crossing from French Frigate Shoals to Midway was somewhat rough with a big northwest swell running at us, along with passing squalls. We skipped the islands between the Shoals and Midway – Gardner Pinnacle, Maro Reef, Laysan, Lisianski, and Pearl and Hermes – because the expedition planned to survey them on the way back to Hawai‘i. Among these islands only Gardner Pinnacle is rock – two small outcroppings, with less than five acres of emergent land. The other islands are coral and sand, and Maro Reef is awash. None are permanently inhabited. Scientists camp on them at intervals to investigate and monitor the wildlife and to work on conservation projects such as alien species eradication.


Midway is the most developed of the NWHI. After the U.S. Naval Air Station closed in 1993, the Fish and Wildlife Service took over, and a limited ecotourism operation began in 1997. Visitor accommodations and a visitors center, gift shop, bowling alley, library, cafeteria, restaurant, and tavern were opened. (Below: Midway Wharf.)

We had lunch at the cafeteria. Filipino and Sri Lankan flags were painted above the food line of the large dining hall, and between them hung a large map of Sri Lanka woven from coconut leaves. Most of the cafeteria workers were from the two countries. As we ate, someone told us that the corporation that runs ecotourism on the island pays the workers $2 an hour. What? Isn’t the minimum wage over $5? Yes, said one of the scientists, but remember, the workers get room and board. “Sounds like the plantation days to me,” commented Ryan, the only non-white local guy on the survey team. Ryan grew up in Pepe‘ekeo on the Håmåkua Coast of the Big Island, former sugar plantation lands.

The director of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i had told me recently that she was at a meeting where an oceanography professor claimed that the reason there weren’t more native and local students in his graduate program was that they were too dumb to get in. Another explanation might be that the students didn’t want to study in a program that had hired such a prejudiced ass. Or it could be that our best students were educated with a terrestial world view and never developed an understanding of the importance of the ocean or a vision of Hawai‘i as a sea state rather than as a colony of a continent. Instead of pursuing careers in oceanography or marine biology, these students chose to go into other fields.

Ryan was finishing his master's degree in botany, studying limu, or seaweeds, with plant expert Dr. Isabella Abbott, one of the few kånaka maoli on the UH science faculty. This was Ryan’s second trip out to the NWHI. He had come out on an earlier expedition to check on the lobster and bottom fish populations. Ryan grew up fishing and diving along the Håmåkua coast. “Still get plenny fish over there,” he told me – access to the rugged coastline is difficult in places and at times dangerous. He went into the study of seaweeds so he could work in the ocean and help take care of Hawai‘i’s marine environment.


After lunch ‘Aulani and I had to decide what to do for the rest of the day. There were a couple of historical tours, one having to do with the Pan Am’s China Clipper Service, which stopped at Midway in the 1930s, another with the battle of Midway during World War II. Not interested – I knew enough about the history of capitalism already. Deep-sea fishing? Not after seven days at sea. Shore fishing? Can’t eat the fish because they are protected. Catch and release only in the lagoon waters. Why catch a fish if you can’t eat it? The lagoon fish was also known to contain ciguatera, a toxin produced by an algae on seaweed that grows in disturbed coral beds. Ciguatera can cause severe symptoms of illness.

We decided to drive around the island in a golf cart, which rented for $20 a day. Our cart had a stingray painted on its front. We headed for the western end of the 1.8-mile-long island, to the most remote point, so we could say we saw the whole island. The path went across the runway and along South Beach, which is off limits to protect birds, monk seals, and turtles from human intrusion. We stopped near some iron woods to look at the beach. It reminded me of Mokulé‘ia, on O‘ahu’s North Shore – dazzling white sand and clear blue water. Some curious white terns hovered just above our heads. ‘Aulani joked that they were attracted to my raffia hat, because they mistook it for their nest. (Not true. White terns don’t build nests; they lay their eggs directly on tree branches.)

On the way back, we spotted some ko‘ae ‘ula, or red-tailed tropic birds, soaring back and forth overhead.

We stopped to photograph them. These prehistoric birds are able to flap their wings backwards and hover. Pelagic, they were getting ready to depart for life at sea. As adults, they would return to Midway to nest.


Back at North Beach, where a bar was located, the crew and scientists were playing volleyball and drinking beers. The beach was beautiful – a wide, flat expanse of silky white sand, over half a mile long.

The water was crystal clear. I swam laps along the shore, in 3-4 feet of water, over a sandy bottom ridged by small incoming wavelets. A school of ‘oama (baby weke, or goatfish) swam by. Backstroking, I watched a curious white tern fluttering above me.

Back on shore I met Gordon. He told me that we were on the island at the best time to visit – August, September, early October – because most of the birds are gone. They start coming back in late October – over a million Laysan and Black-Footed Albatrosses, taking over the island, making quite a racket, blocking pathways, and leaving guano everywhere. That morning, I ran into Gordon preparing to go out bug hunting for the day. I asked him if I could see the two spiders he had collected, one from Nihoa and one from Mokumanamana. He pulled out from his cases two vials filled with brownish liquid. The big spider from Nihoa was mixed in with other debris. The contents looked like overcooked vegetable soup – difficult to distinguish anything. “It was this big,” he said, making a circle with his thumb and index finger. The other spider, with less debris in the vial, was all curled up and looked harmless – not the fierce creature I imagined from watching Cal’s videotape of it, with its two front appendages flicking at the camera. Gordon was heading out to try to find a male wasp; he had found only the female. “He must be out there,” he declared.

At North Beach that afternoon, I asked him, “Any luck?” “Nope. Must be out there, though,” he repeated. His job of keeping track of bug populations struck me as a task designed for Sisyphus.


After the expedition returned from Midway, the scientists reported that the reefs were in excellent condition. The areas surveyed were dominated by large predators, such as ulua and sharks – gray sharks in the southern islands and galapagos sharks in the northern ones. There was an abundance of prized food fish such as uhu and ‘aweoweo. On land, however, a large number of alien insects and plants had established themselves.

In 2000, President Clinton signed an executive order declaring the NWHI a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve and directed the Secretary of Commerce to begin the process for designating the islands a National Marine Sanctuary. The next year, in 2001, public hearings were conducted on the sanctuary proposal. One issue that provoked lively debate was whether to allow commercial fishing or not, and if so, how much.

A couple of parables of fishing circulated as part of the discussion. After World War II, a commercial fishing station opened at Pearl and Hermes. Kanaka maoli fisherman Buzzy Agard recalled those days in a newspaper interview. He discovered the rich fishing grounds around French Frigate Shoals during World War II – an abundance of moi, ulua, ‘ula‘ula, and ‘øpakapaka. After the war, he and other fisherman worked the waters of the NWHI for ten years. Their catches became smaller and smaller, as did the size of the fish they caught. This, along with falling demand and prices in Honolulu, led to the demise of the commercial fishing operation.

A witness to how quickly fishing grounds can be depleted by uncontrolled fishing, Agard is now a conservationist. In this parable, he is transformed from a primitive capitalist taking everything he can catch, to a kanaka maoli committed to limited sustainable yields.

Before the arrival and takeover of Hawai‘i by capitalists, a konohiki, or overseer appointed by an ali‘i, monitored the flora and fauna in a local area. Along the shores, konohiki regulated fishing, prohibited fishing during spawning season, and limited the size of the catch during years of low productivity. The people were taught sustainable harvesting – to gather so that plants and animals could regenerate. ‘Ai‘ai, a fishing god, punished overfishing on Moloka‘i by taking away all the fish. A shark god of Paumalü on O‘ahu bit off the legs of a woman who took more he‘e, or octopus, than she was given permission to catch.

Today research scientists and conservationists, both indigenous and non-indigenous, have taken the place of the konohiki. They have a bigger job on their hands; they have to monitor the health of animal and plant populations on a global scale as human activity has become so extensive and intense that it has begun to impact the entire planet rather than just local areas.

In Hawai‘i the Department of Land and Resources regulates fishing. Restrictions include bans on certain kinds of equipment, like gill nets, limits on the size and amount of catch, a ban on taking females or females with eggs, moratoriums on taking during certain seasons and in certain years when counts were low, and bans on fishing in specific areas designated as nurseries.

A second parable: after a lull in commercial fishing in the late 1950s, commercial interest in the NWHI picked up in the 1960s. Tourism was expanding rapidly in the main Hawaiian Islands; in 1965, 686,000 visitors came; by 1980, there were four million. The state’s population also grew rapidly, by more than fifty percent, from 632,772 in 1960 to 964,691 in 1980; baby boomers were now consumers, with voracious appetites for seafood (and other goods and services). The demand for fish by supermarkets, restaurants, and hotels drove prices back up. At the same time, fish stocks in the main islands were declining under the pressure of the commercial catch. A state task force suggested developing the NWHI fisheries.

In the early 1970s fisherman Skip Naftel discovered the rich lobster banks around Mokumanamana and commercial lobster fishing began in earnest, until eventually about ninety percent of the lobster in local markets was from the NWHI. The catch increased until the early 1980s, when it peaked; then it began declining. Naftel noted that in 1974, he averaged fifteen lobsters per trap; in 1984, two per trap (Rauzon). Despite periodic closures, the population has yet to recover. The fishery was closed by federal injunction in 2000 to protect the Hawaiian monk seal, which forages in the areas of lobster fishing and feeds on lobsters.

The bottom fish catch in the NWHI followed a similar rise and fall. The catch steadily increased for the decades between 1977-87, then began declining. Licensing has limited the number of fisherman in the NWHI. It was hoped that sustainable yields would be possible with licensing and other government restrictions.

There was some discussion about whether climactic and environmental changes were the determining factors that caused the decline in lobsters and bottom fish. Climate change, no doubt, has an impact on animal and plant populations, as does pollution and habitat destruction due to human activities other than fishing. Still, common sense suggests that commercial fishing on the scale it is done today has brought down fish populations not just in the NWHI, but worldwide.

The reason for the relatively swift decline is not difficult to comprehend: modern commercial fishing boats have become highly efficient; they are also expensive to build and operate and profits must pay for the boats and equipment and the livelihood of the captain and crew, as well as enrich the owners and investors. When it comes to a choice between “making a profit today” or “sustaining stocks for future harvesting and future generations,” a capitalist enterprise will most likely choose the former. Capitalism thrives on increasing profits quickly, not on “sustaining long-term yields”; if an industry isn’t gaining, it’s losing. And because capitalists compete with each other (even when their numbers are limited by licensing), a mentality develops that if you don’t take what’s available now, someone else will. What you leave behind, someone else will get before you come back.

Meanwhile, politicians are wary of restricting commercial activities too greatly for fear of reducing jobs, incomes, and taxes, and therefore, voter support for themselves.


Chasing after fish with hooks and nets is a primitive method of getting food, akin to buffalo hunting. But it is carried out so efficiently today (as buffalo hunting was in the past), using high-tech ships equipped with sonar, gigantic nets, miles of lines and hooks, flash freezers, and so on, that fisheries around the world have collapsed, or are on the verge of collapse, or declining. The trends suggest that large-scale commercial fishing may go the way of buffalo hunting and eventually aquaculture will have to replace fishing as the primary method for bringing seafood to market. Already, almost one-third of the fish and other seafood in global market is produced by fish farming.

The development of aquaculture has lagged far behind that of agriculture in the global economy. The majority of human beings feed mainly on land plants and animals. But in Hawai‘i, before Euro-American colonization, fish was the main source of protein, and aquaculture developed early: by the fourteenth century kånaka maoli had built large ponds for raising fish. According to one tradition, the first pond was built at Håna, Maui, by the fishing god Kü‘ula-kai.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 200 rock-walled coastal saltwater ponds (and many more small inland ponds) were documented, the greatest number along the protected leeward shores and bays of O‘ahu and Moloka‘i. The largest pond on O‘ahu, at Maunalua Bay, was over 500 acres. Nineteenth century historian S.M. Kamakau describes the ponds:

The usual fishes in the ponds were the awa, ‘anae, awa‘a[u]a, kaku, aholehole, ‘o‘opu, ‘opae, puhi, and other fishes accustomed to living in ponds. But as a result of the prayers of the kåhuna, some fish that were not accustomed to living in ponds came in; such fishes as ulua, kahala, ‘o‘io, palani, kumu, uhu, manini, puwalu, and some other kinds. The loko kuapa [walled pond] would be filled with all kinds of fish. They would cause ripples against the walls, like waves, and this made glad the na‘au of the keepers of the pond and of the chiefs whose pond it was. “The land has life,” Ola ka ‘åina, the keeper would say to them, and they would be pleased as though they were victorious warriors.

When continental culture took over Hawai‘i, beef, pork, and chicken replaced fish as the main sources of protein. By the end of the twentieth century, only a couple of the ancient fishponds were still in use. But now with the decline of the sugar and pineapple industries, the state is looking once again to the sea in hopes of developing an aquaculture industry. Moi and kåhala are being raised in large sea cages off of Kalaeloa, O‘ahu, and shrimp in man-made ponds in Kahuku, O‘ahu, and in Kekaha, Kaua‘i; flounder, awa (milkfish), saltwater tilapia, and abalone are grown in cold seawater vats in Kona, on the Big Island. Aquaculture companies are researching and developing techniques to raise other seafoods for market: in Hawai‘i, ‘ahi, mahimahi, ulua, ‘øpakapaka, ‘opihi, lobsters, octopus, oysters, and sea cucumbers; in Japan, yellowtail (hamachi), pufferfish, bream, flounder, and sweetfish; in Europe and America, salmon, trout, cod, halibut, sea bass, and turbot.

Like agriculture, aquaculture has its drawbacks and challenges – regimentation and overcrowding of animals, weakening of genetic stocks, overuse of antibiotics to keep stocks healthy, and run-off of sewage and pollution. But despite these problems, the industry will grow because the economic system we belong to is committed to population growth, and in the end, aquaculture will be the only way to supply an ever-increasing demand for seafood.

Of course, the demand for “wild” seafood will always be there as well, as not all kinds of fish can be raised yet, and some consumers consider wild fish tastier and healthier than farm-raised seafood. But once aquaculture is sufficiently developed and a range of seafood can be brought to market at reasonable prices, there will be less pressure to catch fish in the wild and more wild fish for recreation and sports fishers, who often catch and release, and for those who fish for subsistence or to supplement the family food supply with a weekend catch. In the meantime, almost everyone, including the fishing industry, agrees that commercial fishing in Hawai‘i and the NWHI and elsewhere needs to be regulated to be sustained; the debate has shifted from whether or not to regulate, to what kinds of regulations to adopt, what quotas to set.


A case can be made for limiting and regulating human activity other than fishing in the NWHI to conserve and preserve their natural character. Isolation is the incubator, the nursery, and today, the sanctuary of biodiversity. Of the 7,000 species of marine plants and animals found in waters of all the Hawaiian Islands, about half are endemic to the NWHI. And the 2000 expedition discovered several unidentified species, including sponges in holes at the bottom of the deep lagoon at Pearl and Hermes. More species no doubt remain to be discovered.

The more human intrusion into an isolated area, the more likely an aggressive species will be introduced and take over or reduce the habitat of endemic species. A parable from the NWHI: around the turn of the twentieth century, Max Schlemmer, a foreman for a guano extraction operation on Laysan Island, brought in and released rabbits to entertain his children and to provide meat. The rabbits multiplied out of control. By 1918, they had eaten most of the vegetation on the island and were beginning to die out due to lack of food; a colony of about one hundred was all that remained. After the introduction of the rabbit, twenty species of plants became extinct. So did the Laysan Millerbird due to the destruction of its habitat. A visitor in 1923 noted that on the 913-acre island (with a large saline lake in its center), all that was left was “two poor coconut trees and three bushes near the house… In my wildest pessimism I had not feared such utter extirpation of every living plant.” Soon after his visit, the Laysan honeycreeper (related to the native ‘apapane) disappeared as well (Rauzon).

Globalization has brought much, and will bring more such “utter extirpation” to the remote places of the planet. With modern transportation systems, plants, animals, and people are migrating into new environments at a much faster rate than ever before. Hawai‘i, once the remotest archipelago on the planet, used to be an incubator of diversity. Since human settlement and a steady increase of human activity over the centuries, biologists estimate that over a thousand endemic species of animals and plants have gone extinct. In 2002, 317 out of the 1,233 threatened or endangered species listed nationwide were endemic to Hawai‘i.

You can make a capitalist case, as many have, for sustaining biodiversity: some of these little studied (or yet undiscovered) plants and animals might have chemical compounds or genetic materials that could someday prove useful (i.e., profitable) to humans.

You can make an ecological case for biodiversity, as David Quammen does in “Planet of Weeds”: as species disappear and ecosystems break down, we lose “many physical and biochemical functions that ordinarily come as benefits of diverse, robust ecosystems.”

Quammen cites a paleontologist predicting the effects of this loss: Earth will become “a crummier place to live – a more stressful place to live, a more difficult place to live, a less resilient place to live”; it will be dominated by a relatively small number of “aggressive, versatile, prolific” species (e.g., ragweed, cockroaches, fleas, rats, pigeons, humans).

And as our globalized, monocultural civilization spreads over the planet, creating a single ecosystem, we become more vulnerable to contagious diseases like SARS because they can become epidemic much faster than in the past, reducing the time available to find a remedy.

You can make an aesthetic case against biopaucity and for biodiversity – to preserve the sheer wonder of many different manifestations of nature alive in diverse natural habitats.

You can make a spiritual case for biodiversity, as indigenous peoples do: plants and animals are our siblings and have helped us survive for millennia. In gratitude and appreciation, we should take care of them, protect them from extinction.

Change is part of nature. Animals and plants have always traveled on the currents of wind and water and established themselves in the new places of the planet. Species die out. New species evolve. What’s scary today is the rapidity of change and loss. Remoteness on the surface of earth no longer exists; it can only be created by limiting access to places like the NWHI.


What kinds of activities might be appropriate in a sanctuary?

Access to cultural sites on Nihoa and Mokumanamana for kånaka maoli is a given. The spirits of their ancestors are still there. In 1997, the skeletal remains removed from these islands by archaeologists in 1924 were returned. (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 mandated protection of indigenous grave sites and required museums to return any bones they had unearthed and removed previously.) In 1857, Kamehameha IV landed on Nihoa and annexed it to the Hawaiian Kingdom; Laysan was annexed in the same year. Hawaiian sovereignty groups want the islands back. (Mokumanamana was formally claimed in 1894 by the haole government that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy.) Whoever ends up controlling the islands will hopefully enforce strict cultural and biological protocols.

What about ecotourism? Except on Midway, there is too little land and infrastructure and no safe harbors or anchorages to support even limited ecotourism (though, no doubt, helicopter overflights or landings will one day be proposed.)

For a short period, visitors were allowed on Midway. But the attractions are few: the historical sites of the island can be covered in a couple of days and interest in looking at birds, turtles, and seals won’t last long for the average tourist. Other less remote, less restricted destinations throughout the Pacific offer comparable or better fishing, diving, and swimming along with other attractions. To make a profit, Midway’s tourism operation had to exploit cheap foreign labor. By 2001, the ecotourism contractor on Midway pulled out, complaining that Fish and Wildlife, with its rules and regulations, had made it too difficult to make a profit. In the long run, the best use of the NWHI is probably to leave the islands alone, except for limited cultural, economic, scientific, and educational purposes.


Traveling up the NWHI from the main Hawaiian Islands is like moving through millions of years of geologic time: at Midway, whose rocks are twenty-eight million years old, we were at one end of the process of island formation that started with volcanic islands emerging from the sea; flat Midway and Kure are clearly on their way back under; meanwhile, at the far eastern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, the eruption at Kîlauea is adding land to Hawai‘i’s youngest island; and off its coast, fifteen miles to the southeast, an active underwater volcano called Lo‘ihi will eventually add another mountain onto Hawai‘i or grow into a new island.

Geologic and evolutionary time reduces human tenure on earth to a minor episode, if even that. The boobies perched silently on the upright stones of Mokumanamana belong to a genus (sula) that was here long before we were, and will probably be here long after we are gone. Or both of our species might disappear in one of the periodic mass extinctions during which the planet loses on the order of seventy-five to ninety-five percent of its species due to some unpredictable or uncontrollable ecological change. Five such mass extinctions have been discerned in fossil records, the first one identified as occurring about 439 million years ago when life was only in the sea.

Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid or comet hit the planet near the present-day Yucatan Peninsula; the resulting wildfires and pollution destroyed so many ecosystems that about seventy-five percent of plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs, went extinct.

After these collapses, Earth recovered “ecological fullness” in five to ten million years, with a new array of species. In such time frames, what human beings do here and now hardly seems to matter.

In human time, however, we owe it to the generations who will be born after us to pay attention to the health of the Earth. That this health is dependent on balancing the number of people with the carrying capacity of the places where we live became clear to me as I sat among the ruins on Nihoa: subsistence living was sustainable there for about one hundred people over several centuries; then it wasn’t. For whatever reason, the island could no longer support hardy human life and was abandoned.

What is the carrying capacity of the main Hawaiian Islands? How many more people, how much more economic activity and waste can they support and still remain a comfortable and healthy place to live? Who is benefiting from the wealth created by increasing population, production, and consumption? Could people be content to live with smaller numbers and less goods and money, if it meant a healthier environment?

Of course, carrying capacities can change over time, with new ways of living, fluctuating climate, advancing technology. But in any given time frame, it will take careful and complex planning and control to make sure that population doesn’t outrun capacity and that human activity doesn’t damage the long-term health of the islands or make them, for generations to come, “a crummier place to live.” But perhaps establishing limits isn't possible; perhaps the genetic imperative of human beings, like all organisms, from viruses to dinosaurs, is to multiply and spread, until some other organism or some ecological barrier or change limits their expansion, reduces their numbers, or results in their extinction.