In a Step Forward for Oceans, Obama Expands Largest Protected Area on Earth

Papahānaumokuākea, Hawaii, Leon Kaye, Honolulu, HOAA, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, overfishing, ocean acidification, oceans, sustainable development, marine life
A close-up of an anemome in Papahānaumokuākea.

On August 26, President Barack Obama approved the expansion of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, known in Hawaii as Papahānaumokuākea, to 582,578 square miles. The protected area, lying in the outermost stretches of the Hawaiian chain that extend 1,200 miles northwest of the island of Niihau, is now quadruple the size of what it was before Obama’s announcement.

Marine biologists hope this expansion helps preserve some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs and marine ecosystems where new species are frequently discovered. Papahānaumokuākea’s natural wonders include a deep-water black coral reef approximately 4,300 years old and an underground mountain that rises 13,800 feet from the sea floor – taller than Hawaii’s highest point, Mauna Kea.

This expansion is a huge leap forward for the preservation of the world’s oceans. The seas provide an economic lifeline for many of the world’s poorest citizens but are under threat from the double-whammy of overfishing and climate change.

The preservation of this region started during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency after the U.S. annexed the Hawaiian Islands in the 1890s. Roosevelt enacted protections in order to stop the unfettered slaughter of seabirds including the albatross, the feathers of which were coveted for women’s hats. Over the years four other U.S. presidents increased conservation and protection measures for this region, which is visually striking with its turquoise waters jeweled with volcanic lava formations.

Then, in a surprise political move a decade ago, President George W. Bush designated these islands and the immediate surrounding waters a national marine monument. Bush’s landmark, or shall we say, watershed, moment was the first time in U.S. history that a large area of oceans was transferred to the protection of the U.S. National Park Service, which for over a century established national parks and monuments on land.

But despite that protection, estimates suggest that only about 3 percent of the world’s oceans have been protected for conservation purposes. Many scientists insist that the amount to be conserved should be at least 30 percent worldwide in order to to safeguard biodiversity, allow fisheries to replenish, and ensure sustainable development for the citizens who rely on the oceans for their economic security. The United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity pledged to set aside 10 percent of the world’s oceans for preservation by 2020.

And Hawaiians are leading grassroots efforts to promote the idea of such an expansion. A group representing Native Hawaiians proposed the idea to the White House in January. Papahānaumokuākea is a spiritual place to many Native Hawaiians, as traditions link the long chain of atolls to gods and places where people’s spirits return after death.

Papahānaumokuākea, Hawaii, Leon Kaye, Honolulu, HOAA, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, overfishing, ocean acidification, oceans, sustainable development, marine life
An albatross nesting on Midway Atoll.

This move by the U.S. should inspire other countries to follow suit. Over the past 18 months more ocean territory was designated for protection than at any other time in history. Joining the U.S. on these efforts are countries including Chile, New Zealand, Palau and the United Kingdom. Such efforts will be discussed at the annual Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which is hosting its annual meeting this week in Honolulu, the first in the U.S. in its 68-year history.

One effort that should inspire other countries to study, and then protect, their oceanic territory is a recent 25-day expedition led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In late May, NOAA started one of the most extensive studies of Papahānaumokuākea. The team of researchers’ scope included old-growth coral forests; albatross nesting grounds at iconic Midway Island, the scene of the battle that changed the course of World War II’s Pacific Theater; and algae growths already underway due to the effects of climate change and ocean acidification. Some of this group’s research findings and photographs, which concluded this June, are on display at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Several organizations offered logistical support for this effort, including the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy campaign partnered with Native Hawaiian groups, local businesses, marine scientists, elected officials and environmental NGOs to make the case for Papahānaumokuākea’s expansion. Projects included studies of the region’s cultural and scientific significance, seminars, community meetings, and a media campaign. Over 1 million people in Hawaii and across the U.S. sent letters or signed petitions in urging the Obama administration to support the expansion.

“With our oceans warming and acidifying, Papahānaumokuākea will be a climate refuge where ocean life will have a chance,” said Matt Rand, director of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy Campaign. “This historic announcement of Papahānaumokuākea as the world’s largest marine reserve is a symbol of hope that we can change course and protect the health of our planet.”

The White House decision to expand Papahānaumokuākea is one of the largest steps taken by this administration to expand the amount of U.S territory set aside for conservation. But this move has social impact as well. President Obama designated the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) as a co-trustee of this massive marine monument, a move that allows Native Hawaiians to have more influence on how the monument is managed. “This has been a 10-year effort to achieve this position,” said Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, CEO of OHA, in a written statement. “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.”

Preserving the world’s oceans will improve quality of life for people who rely on them for sustenance and economic opportunities. These same people were careful stewards of these waters for generations, and have no control over externalities such as climate change or the massive ocean trawlers that devastated fisheries. But if other countries commit to such protection at the scale of what the U.S. just accomplished, the odds that the oceans can heal and help sustain the world’s population improve.

More protected areas mean that more occasions will exist to study these complicated and fragile ecosystems. And that, in turn, can encourage civil society, governments and business to develop new strategies for managing this precious resource so they can help ensure their long-term viability.

Image credits: NOAA

Disclosure: Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) is funding Leon Kaye’s trip to Hawaii to cover the IUCN Congress. Neither the author, nor TriplePundit, were required to write about the experience. 

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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