Hawai‘i’s New Neighbor, Papahānaumokuākea

Expansion of the marine monument largest of its kind

News Writer Gina Selig

Photo of Papahānaumokuākea
Photograph by Pascal Erhel Hatuuku (papahanaumokuakea.gov)

While most students at UH Hilo were busy scurrying to classes on the first week of school, history in ocean conservation was being made. President Obama signed a proclamation to expand the Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah) Marine National Monument. An area that already was the largest fully protected conservation area in the United States, its size was 139,797 square miles. Obama practically doubled that, adding 442,781 square miles Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument now measures to be an enormous 582,578 square miles. It is now the largest marine protected area on the planet, nearly the size of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument was established on June 15, 2006, under the authority of the Antiquities Act to protect its cultural resources. The name Papahānaumokuākea honors the unification of Papahānaumoku, the Earth mother, and Wākea, the sky father who created the archipelago, taro plant, and the Hawaiian people. Ocean conservation of this area dates back to 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Marines to stop poaching seabirds for their eggs and feathers at Midway Atoll. Later in the 20th century, President Bill Clinton created the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, which includes areas adjacent to the state waters extending seaward 50 nautical miles.

As rich in meaning as the definition of its name, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is home to over 7,000 marine species, with 25% of them only found in the Hawaiian archipelago. In all, there are 23 species found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including the green sea turtle and Hawaiian monk seal. The Marine National Monument also protects land animals, providing an area for about 14 million seabirds and 22 different species to breed and nest.

With practices like overfishing adversely affecting marine life, the expansion of this monument represents a new shift in favor of those who support combating climate change. In an interview with Athline Clark, Papahānaumokuākea’s superintendent under the direction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Ke Kalahea has learned that President Obama’s plans for the monument will have a significant effect on our oceans - especially with regard to Hawai‘i’s native fauna and flora. When asked what the expansion will mean for endangered species such as the Hawaiian monk seal and the green sea turtle, Clark noted how “Hawaiian monk seals are known to forage on the seamounts outside of the previous boundaries of the Monument, particularly in the northern part of the chain near Kure Atoll. The boundary expansion will increase the level of protection for these animals that are traveling up to 70 miles to forage on the Helsley Seamount.”

Concerning Honu, “The Hawaiian green sea turtle nests almost exclusively at French Frigate Shoal, one of the atolls within the Monument. The turtles travel great distances across the entire archipelago to lay their eggs in this remote location. The expansion of the Monument ensures that the turtles have a greater level of protection while transiting between the main Hawaiian Islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” Clark said.

“Seabird tracking studies have also shown that when the seabirds are nesting, their foraging patterns are more concentrated within the 200 mile boundary that is now within the expanded area. The expansion will help to protect these foraging birds,” Clark added.

Since the Marine National Monument covers such a large area, it can be logistically challenging to enforce a multitude of rules and regulations that govern federally protected places. According to the monument’s website, some of the prohibited activities include “Exploring for, developing, or producing oil, gas, or minerals, or any energy development activities within the Monument Expansion; Using or attempting to use poisons, electrical charges, or explosives in the collection or harvest of a Monument Expansion resource; Introducing or otherwise releasing an introduced species from within or into the Monument Expansion; Removing, moving, taking, harvesting, possessing, injuring, disturbing, or damaging, or attempting to remove, move, take, harvest, possess, injure, disturb, or damage, any living or nonliving Monument Expansion resource, except as provided under regulated activities below; Drilling into, dredging, or otherwise altering the submerged lands, or constructing, placing, or abandoning any structure, material, or other matter on the submerged lands, except for scientific instruments…” and many more. While some believe that the detection of poachers and the regulation of prohibited activities will be virtually impossible in an area of 582,578 square miles, Clark doesn’t think it will be an issue.

“At 582,578 square miles, you would in fact wonder if this huge expanse of ocean is difficult to enforce. However, large-scale marine protected areas are in fact relatively easy to enforce, especially one where there is a strict permit regime like there is in this Monument,” Clark said. “Activities are regulated and it is fairly easy to detect when activities that should not be occurring in such an area are in fact happening.”

With salt water covering 71% of the Earth, oceans provide a critical source of sustenance for millions. Like the life-giving oxygen of the tropical rainforests, the oceans share a common characteristic: microscopic phytoplankton in the top layer of the sea act as biological pumps, extracting 2.5 billion tons (about one-third) of organic carbon out of the atmosphere, annually replacing it with oxygen vital to our survival. Unfortunately, there has been a substantial amount of pollution that has fouled the marine environment.

Pollution can enter the ocean in various ways, including by means of ocean acidification and offshore drilling. Ocean acidification is caused by the uptake carbon dioxide and the over looming presence of it in the atmosphere. It has already caused the degradation of coral reefs and has negatively impacted commercially important fishes. Offshore drilling increases the risk of toxic exposure from oil contamination to wildlife and coastal communities and contributes to economic losses and climate change. The expansion of the Pahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is the first to reach its incredible size. Even though this Monument proves that positive change can happen, the question arises, will it be enough? Is it possible that this expansion could spark interest to either create or expand more marine protected areas in other parts of the world? Clark’s comment was,

“When Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was first created as a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in 2000 it became the first remote large-scale MPA [marine protected area,]” Clark said. “It was only the second large-scale marine protected area worldwide, the first being the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In 2006, the Phoenix Islands Protected area was established and within less than two years, President Bush then created the Pacific Remote Islands and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monuments. Since that time there have been 20 sites either established or in various stages of being proposed by 12 countries… It is a growing field of conservation. Size matters, and it is my prediction that we will not retain the distinction of the largest conservation area globally for long. MPAs have become a key conservation tool, with most nations agreeing to commitments to protect 10 to 30 percent of the world's oceans at various global summits. There has been a seven-fold increase in large marine protected areas over the last decade and we do not see this diminishing.”