HONOLULU (AP) – Hanauma Bay, a volcanic crater flooded with gem-blue Pacific waters and hundreds of species of tropical fish, has been named the best American beach.

The bay ascends to the top of the 14th annual rankings out Friday from Stephen Leatherman, the Florida environmental scientist known as “Dr. Beach.”

“It’s a perfect little jewel,” Leatherman said in a telephone interview from Miami.

The selection of a stretch of white sand along Oahu’s eastern shore is not surprising. Hanauma Bay has appeared on the list a number of times in the past and Hawaii beaches have topped the list all but once in the last nine years. Since the first rankings in 1991, Florida has been the only other state to have a beach occupy the top spot.

“We certainly deserve being the best beach,” said Alan Hong, manager of the property. “We’re very different than a typical beach park.”

Hanauma Bay provides a spectacular vista and superb snorkeling that have lured tourists for decades. Its popularity peaked in the late 1980s, with more than 10,000 visitors coming on its busiest days, and more than 3 million people visiting annually.

The traffic was leading to a decline in the health of the bay’s precious coral reef, and in 1990, officials stepped in to begin working to limit access.

In the 14 years since, annual visitor numbers have been halved as restrictions were put in place. Tour buses are no longer welcome. Fish feeding is prohibited. Smoking is banned. An education program is in place that requires new visitors to watch a seven-minute video. Out-of-state adult visitors now must pay $5 to get in.

“It’s not a place you come with your volleyball net and hibachi,” Hong said.

The restrictions in place have been viewed as a hassle to many, but Leatherman called it “the proper way to manage, basically, a limited resource.”

Leatherman says he visits more than 100 beaches each year, using a 50-criteria system to rate everything from sand color to water clarity, parking to wave levels. He is a coastal expert and a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

Last year’s national winner was Kaanapali Beach on Maui. Once a beach earns the top ranking on Leatherman’s list, it is excluded from the survey.

Visitors to Hanauma Bay descend a steep road to the bottom of the crater, enjoying a spectacular view of magnificent, reef-filled waters surrounded on three sides by the steep walls of the volcanic cone.

“You can’t stand to not take a picture of it,” said Leatherman, 56. “It’s that beautiful.”

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