President Barack Obama announced today he will expand the existing Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) by 442,781 square miles, bringing the total protected area of the expanded monument to 582,578 square miles, according to a PMNM news release.
Today’s action creates the largest protected area in the world, and expands the size of the original monument more than four fold. The area under the reserve is now nearly four times the size of the state of California.
“This is a historical moment for Hawaii and the world,” said William Aila, Jr., one of the Native Hawaiians leading the effort for expansion, and who has been involved in establishing protections for this area for more than 15 years. “This is a bold move, and it took a bold President — born and raised in Hawai‘i — to address the serious issues of climate change, the dire state of our oceans and recognizing the cultural significance of the area for Native Hawaiians. Mahalo, Mr. President.”
Following this historic conservation action, the President will travel to Hawai‘i next week. On Wednesday evening, he will address leaders from the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders and the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which is being hosted in the United States for the first time. On Thursday, he will travel to Midway Atoll, located within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, to mark the significance of this monument designation and highlight first-hand how the threat of climate change makes protecting our public lands and waters more important than ever.
The monument was originally created in 2006 by President George W. Bush and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. Since that time, new scientific exploration and research has revealed new species and deep sea habitats as well as important ecological connections between the existing monument and the adjacent waters, according to a White House press release.
The expansion provides critical protections for more than 7,000 marine species, including whales and sea turtles listed under the Endangered Species Act and the longest-living marine species in the world — black coral, which have been found to live longer than 4,500 years. Additionally, as ocean acidification, warming, and other impacts of climate change threaten marine ecosystems, expanding the monument will improve ocean resilience, help the region’s distinct physical and biological resources adapt, and create a natural laboratory that will allow scientists to monitor and explore the impacts of climate change on these fragile ecosystems.
The expanded monument area also contains resources of great historical and cultural significance. The expanded area, including the archipelago and its adjacent waters, is considered a sacred place for the Native Hawaiian community. It plays a significant role in Native Hawaiian creation and settlement stories, and is used to practice important activities like traditional long-distance voyaging and wayfinding. Additionally, within the monument expansion area, there are shipwrecks and downed aircraft from the Battle of Midway in World War II, a battle that marked a major shift in the progress of the war in favor of the Allies.
All commercial resource extraction activities, including commercial fishing and any future mineral extraction, are prohibited in the expansion area, as they are within the boundaries of the existing monument. Noncommercial fishing, such as recreational fishing and the removal of fish and other resources for Native Hawaiian cultural practices, is allowed in the expansion area by permit, as is scientific research.
In recognition of the value of Papahānaumokuākea to Native Hawaiians, and in keeping with Obama’s commitment to elevating the voices of Native peoples in management of our resources, Secretary of the Interior Jewell and Secretary of Commerce Pritzker also announced that the Departments will soon sign an agreement with Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and Office of Hawaiian Affairs providing for a greater management role as a trustee in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. This arrangement has been previously requested by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Hawai‘i Gov. David Ige.
Today’s action by Obama responds to a proposal put forward by Schatz and prominent Native Hawaiian leaders, in addition to significant input and local support from Hawaiian elected officials, cultural groups, conservation organizations, scientists and fishermen. This step also builds on a rich tradition of marine protection in Hawaiian waters and world-class, well managed fisheries, including a longline fishing fleet that is a global leader in sustainable practices.
The expansion was the culmination of efforts led by Native Hawaiians, a diverse statewide coalition, and a close partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy Project.
Cumulatively, over the last year, the coalition participated in and held more than 70 public engagement sessions to take in comment and generate support for the effort. More than 1 million people across the globe and from Hawai‘i signed petitions or wrote letters to the White House and lawmakers in support. This includes the support of more than 8,000 Hawaii residents, Gov. David Ige of the State of Hawai‘i, 1,500 scientists, and hundreds of small-scale fishermen across the state.
Schatz backed this effort by submitting a proposal to expand the protections to Obama, which was adopted by the coalition.
“Expanding Papahanaumokuakea makes a definitive statement about Hawai‘i’s and the United States’ commitment to ocean conservation,” Schatz said in a statement. “By adopting my proposal to expand the monument, President Obama has created a safe zone that will replenish stocks of ‘ahi, promote biodiversity, and fight climate change, and he has given Native Hawaiians a greater voice in managing this precious resource.”
Schatz said Obama’s declaration is only the beginning. To create continuing success, he said, we will need to work together to maintain and grow the partnerships that made the expansion possible.
The effort to expand included an in-depth, comprehensive study of the biological and cultural significance of the area. Some places within the expanded monument show 100 percent endemism at depths of 328 feet (100 meters). Scientists also have found the world’s oldest known living organism — a deep-water black coral estimated to be 4,265 years old — within the new boundaries. Shipwrecks from World War II’s Battle of Midway, including wreckage from the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, also are located in the newly-protected area. To Native Hawaiians, Papahānaumokuākea is a sacred place, believed to be the root of ancestral connections to the gods and the site to which spirits return after death.
“In an era of mounting climate change impacts on both global landscapes and seascapes, and with advances in technology that allow the exploitation of resources from the most isolated islands and deepest corners of the ocean, this well justified application of the Antiquities Act to protect resources of great scientific, cultural and historic value comes at a critical time,” said Robert Richmond, Ph.D., Research Professor and Director, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. “The only refuges left on this earth are those we choose to set aside and protect. This bold move is a true sign of proactive leadership that will help insure a legacy of vital bio-cultural resources for Hawaii, the Pacific and the world.”
In the face of growing climate change effects on the world’s ocean resources, this scientifically and culturally sound decision will benefit generations to come, and help insure a legacy of precious biodiversity and fisheries resources for the future.
“Over the last 30 years, I have participated on ten expeditions to document biodiversity in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. We continue to discover species new to science every time we visit this incredible area,” said Richard L. Pyle, PhD, Researcher, Bernice P. Bishop Museum. “The expansion of the Monument is a critical and necessary step to protect this vast and unique region not just from existing threats, but from future impacts over the decades and centuries to come. President Obama has demonstrated bold leadership in recognizing the importance of saving biodiversity not just for our generation, but the entire future of humanity. His decision to expand the Monument restores my hope that we may yet overcome the major environmental challenges we now face.”
Obama’s announcement builds on steps taken by six presidents — starting with Theodore Roosevelt and including three Republicans and three Democrats — to conserve the ecosystems and wildlife of the NWHI.
When Bush designated the islands and the surrounding waters a national marine monument in 2006, it marked the first time a large area of ocean had been set aside for protection in the U.S., which has a long history of establishing national parks on land. At that time, Papahānaumokuākea was the largest marine reserve in the world. Subsequently, more than a dozen large-scale highly-protected marine reserves have been created across the globe, including nine larger than the original Hawaiian monument.
“I am proud of our ‘island born’ president and his vision to ensure that the future of our keiki will be secured with the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea,” said Sol Kahoʻohalahala, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and a member of the NWHI Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, which is made up of 50 individuals across the state who have a close connection to Papahanaumokuakea and is under the Monument’s Management Board. “Through the eyes of na moʻopuna (grandchildren) we see hope in our potential for global solutions that will not only meet our challenging times but to overcome them. We are leaving them a broad expanse for discoveries, innovations and solutions.”
The President also announced plans to elevate the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to a co-Trustee of the monument. This move increases the management role of Native Hawaiians with respect to the monument’s natural resources.
More ocean has been set aside for protection in the past 18 months than during any other period in history, with announcements of new marine reserves by the governments of the U.S., the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Chile, and Palau.
Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy campaign has helped safeguard 6.3 million square kilometers (2.4 million square miles) of ocean by working with local communities, governments, scientists and other stakeholders around the world.
Even with these successes, only about 3 percent of the world’s ocean has been set aside with strong protections today. Recent science supports conserving at least 30 percent to maintain biodiversity, support fisheries productivity, and safeguard the myriad economic, cultural, and life-supporting benefits of the seas.
In addition to protecting more land and water than any Administration in history, Obama has sought to lead the world in marine conservation by combating illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, revitalizing the process for establishing new marine sanctuaries, establishing the National Ocean Policy, and promoting ocean stewardship through the use of science- based decision making.