Kauō (Laysan Island) is the second largest land mass in the NWHI (1,015 acres) just behind Sand Island at Midway Atoll. It is about 1 mile wide and 1-1/2 miles long and roughly rectangular in shape (shaped like a poi board).
Laysan Island is a member of the Hawaiian archipelago situated 790 sea miles to the northwest of Honolulu, latitude 25” 2’ 14” N, longitude 170” 44’ 06” W.
The island has a maximum elevation of about 30 feet. A fringing reef surrounds the island protecting its shores from violent wave action. (Baldwin)
Kauō (egg) describes both the shape of this island and, perhaps, the abundant seabirds that nest here. The island also previously harbored five Hawaiian endemic land birds, of which two, the endangered Laysan finch and the endangered Laysan duck, still survive. (PMNM Management Plan)
The Laysan Millerbird, along with the Laysan Rail and Laysan Honeycreeper, went extinct in the early 20th century when Laysan Island was denuded by non-native rabbits. (PMNM)
The island’s easy access and large number of seabirds made it a base for traders of guano (bird droppings used as fertilizer) and feather harvesters in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Although the practices were declared illegal, poachers killed hundreds of thousands of birds and caused dramatic changes in the island’s ecosystem. Remnants of guano piles remain from this era.
Rabbits released in the early 1900s devastated the island’s vegetation. These events caused a public outcry which led to the creation of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. (Dill)
The endangered Laysan duck, is the rarest waterfowl in the Northern hemisphere and has the smallest geographic range of any duck species in the world.
It once lived throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago but vanished from the main Hawaiian Islands with the arrival of rats around 800 years ago. They later disappeared from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands except for a small population that existed in isolation on Laysan Island for more than 150 years.
In 1911, only 11 ducks were observed on Laysan Island. Today, under present management operations, there are over 707 Laysan ducks – 40 on Kure, 290 on Midway and 377 on Laysan Island. (PMNM)
In addition, approximately two million seabirds nest here, including boobies, frigatebirds, terns, shearwaters, noddies, and the world’s second-largest black-footed and Laysan albatross colonies. (PMNM Management Plan)
Laysan has a large saltwater lagoon occupying about one-fifth of the island’s central depression. It is well vegetated (except for its sand dunes) and contains a hyper-saline lake, which is one of only five natural lakes in the State of Hawai‘i. (PMNM)
Laysan has been protected as a bird reserve since 1909, introduced mammals have been extirpated, and the island has no infrastructure besides a small field camp. (USGS)
“The Hawaiian Islands Reservation was established by Executive order in 1909 to serve as a refuge and breeding place for the millions of sea birds and waders that from time immemorial have resorted there yearly to raise their young or to rest while migrating.”
“In 1909 a party of feather hunters landed on Laysan, one of the twelve islands comprising the reservation, and killed more than 200,000 birds, notably albatrosses, for millinery purposes.”
“Through the prompt cooperation of the Secretary of the Treasury, the revenue cutter Thetis, under the command of Capt. W. V. E. Jacobs, was dispatched to the island and returned to Honolulu in January, 1910, with 23 poachers and their booty, consisting of the plumage of more than a quarter of a million birds.”
“In the spring of 1911 a cooperative arrangement was effected with the University of Iowa … whereby an expedition was sent to Laysan, the largest and most important island of the group, to ascertain the present condition of the bird rookeries and to collect a series of birds for a museum exhibit.” (Wilson & Henshaw, Expedition 1911)
Here’s a link to the Google ‘Street View’ on Laysan Island.
While I was Chair at DLNR, we created State Refuge rules whose intent is “To establish a marine refuge in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for the long-term conservation and protection of the unique coral reef ecosystems and the related marine resources and species, to ensure their conservation and natural character for present and future generations.” Fishing is prohibited.
This started a process where several others followed with similar protective measures. The BLNR unanimously adopted the State’s Refuge rules, President Bush declared it a Marine National Monument and UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.
Some ask why we imposed such stringent limitations on use in this area. For me, it ended up being pretty simple; it is the responsibility we share to future generations, to allow them to see what it looks like at a place in the world where you don’t take something.