Conservationists are calling it a great day for the ocean.
On Friday, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation expanding the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii.
The expansion creates the world’s largest marine protected area, more than quadrupling the size of the original marine monument defined in 2006. It has been increased over the years and this latest expansion will grow the monument from 442,781 to 582,578 square miles, more than four times the size of California.
It is meant to permanently protect pristine coral reefs, deep sea marine habitats, and important ecological resources in the waters of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
“We hope that it’s an example of the future for all leaders of all the world of why it’s so important to protect the natural world,” said Richard Pyle, an associate researcher at Bishop Museum.
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.
Next week, the president will travel to Hawaii. 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 Papahanaumokuakea 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.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D, Hawaii, formally proposed the PMNM expansion in a letter to the president in June.
“This is one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans,” Schatz said in a statement. “Expanding Papahanaumokuakea will replenish stocks of ahi, promote biodiversity, fight climate change, and give a greater voice to Native Hawaiians in managing this resource. President Obama’s declaration is only the beginning. To create continued success, we will need to follow through with management, research, educational opportunities, and enforcement. This declaration sets us on a strong path forward for our irreplaceable environment and the generations to come.”
“I congratulate and thank the President for taking the important step to be a global leader in protecting ocean resources. President Obama’s efforts to enhance protections for our ocean ecosystem will help to combat climate change, preserve biodiversity, and honor cultural traditions. As part of his announcement, I appreciate the President’s recognition of the importance of commercial fishing to Hawaii’s way of life and our shared goal of supporting Hawaii’s sustainable pelagic fisheries,” U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D, Hawaii, said in a statement.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker also announced that the departments will soon sign an agreement with Hawaii’s Department of Natural Resources and Office of Hawaiian Affairs providing for a greater management role as a trustee in the monument.
The arrangement was requested by Schatz and Gov. David Ige.
Kamanaopono Crabbe, Ka Pouhana/CEO, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, says the office is ready and eager to take on the responsibility:
“The elevation of OHA to a Co-Trustee position rightfully places the Native Hawaiian voice at all levels of decision making in the governance of Papahānaumokuākea. This has been a ten year effort to achieve this position and this success marks the beginning of a new era of collaboration for the co-managers of the area to fulfill the tremendous responsibility of protecting and caring for this sacred place.”
Supporters call it a win for science and a gift for keiki.
“They are the ones who are going to carry the burden, so let’s help them become now the keepers of this special place,” said Solomon Kahoohalahala, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Cultural Working Group.
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.