Ecology of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

By Carroll Yorgey

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) located in the Pacific Oceania represent the oldest part of the Hawaiian Island chain but are located 1200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands comprise a vibrant and diverse ecosystem of

  • coral reefs
  • islands
  • atolls
  • shoals

Over 7,000 species of marine life make their home in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Now a national monument called the Papahanaumokuakea Monument, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are a protected ecological and wildlife sanctuary. The NWHI islands are one of the oldest environmental habitats in the world and are home to a huge diversity of wildlife beginning with the lowest members of the food chain – the coral reefs and all the sea creatures and plants that make the coral reefs their home.

There are over 3.5 million acres of coral colonies throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that are home to over 150 species of red, green, and brown algae.

The waters include seven species of sea turtles with all of them endangered except one. Two types of coral are also on the endangered species list. What happens when the coral colonies that are the base of the food chain are wiped out?

Ninety percent of the world’s Green Sea Turtles come to nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But the Green Sea Turtle is endangered. Hawaiian Monk Seals are also endangered.

The largest colony of Laysan Albatross in the world make their home in the NWHI at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The are also many diverse species of whales, dolphins, and seals in the waters of the NWHI.

For marine birds who live mostly on the water, the NWHI is their main foraging and breeding area.

Environmental pollution in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

The problem is the vast amount of pollution in the form of trash and garbage that ends up on the shores of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

As stated in a National Geographic video about the NWHI, the region between the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the Americas is the “largest marine trash dump in the world” and described also “like a giant toilet bowl that never gets flushed.”

In the past ten years, 600 tons of trash have been removed from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Trash can be a fatal reality for sea birds who die from ingesting it as do other marine species.

Although the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are now protected as a US national monument there are still threats such as tourism, trash dumping by cruise liners, and the US Navy’s proposed expansion plans of their military training base in the Hawaiian Islands, according to conservationists and indigenous communities.

References:

http://www.kahea.org/issues/ocean-protection/northwestern-hawaiian-islands-1/nwhi-ecosystems

Copyright © 2020 Carroll Colette J. Yorgey. Originally published in 2010.