Ocean Protection, Marine Protected Areas
July 05 2016

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

by Joanna Malaczynski

Hawaii may soon again be home to the world’s largest marine protected area.  President Obama is being urged by members of the Hawaiian community, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and over 1,500 scientists to significantly expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 

Underpinning this movement is the recent publication of a report by twelve leading scientists arguing for the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, entitled, “Puʻuhonua, A Place of Sanctuary.”  The report describes the significant ecological and cultural significance of Papahānaumokuākea.  It also urges the President to use his power under the Antiquities Act to expand the size of the sanctuary five-fold, leaving a cultural legacy unprecedented since President Roosevelt used the same administrative powers to establish the National Park System.    

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument first made international news in 2006, when President G.W. Bush established the marine protected area; it was the largest such protected area in the world, scaling larger than 46 of our 50 states.  Other countries took our cue and began establishing marine protected areas around the globe. 

At a time when 90 percent of the world’s predators are believed to have been driven into extinction, the Papahānaumokuākea sanctuary is especially esteemed for its healthy predator population, including a diversity of sharks.  The sancturary currently protects over 7,000 known marine species in total, 25% of which are found nowhere else on the planet, including 23 endangered species

Papahānaumokuākea’s proposed expansion would increase the area of the sanctuary from approximately 139,800 square miles to possibly 639,300 square miles.  This would make the sanctuary approximately three times as large as France in terms of surface area.  Most of the benefit, however, would be felt underneath the surface.    

The proposed addition extends to the limits of the U.S. economic zone in most directions and is possibly 14,000 feet deep or deeper in the vertical direction.  The area contains a vast landscape of over 100 underwater mountains, which—like the vast majority of our oceans—are mostly unexplored.  New and previously unknown species are continuously being discovered in the area, such as the recently-discovered oldest coral known to man, dating back over 4,000 years. 

The blue terrain under discussion is generally also known to host to a diversity of critical marine life, starting with tiny creatures known as phytoplankton (foundational to our food-chain and oxygen cycle), and the northern-most coral reefs in the world at a time when corals are threatened by climate change.  Estimates suggest that the proposed expansion area would also help protect 97% of the remaining 1,100 wild Hawaiian Monk Seals and 90% of the remaining Hawaiian Green Turtles.  It would also provide a safe haven for migratory species that travel thousands of miles to spend time in these waters, including humpback whales from the north.

Expanding the sanctuary five-fold would help protect these and other species from resource extraction, overfishing, entanglements, and fatal ingestion of marine debris.  Indeed the largest threat to species living within the existing sanctuary is garbage, made up predominantly of plastics.  Over the last ten years, an ongoing marine debris clean-up program has removed 586 tons of garbage in this relatively remote area; the annual 2016 clean-up expedition removed 2,400 pounds of wayward trash

All in all, the expansion would provide much needed resources for the management and oversight of this diverse yet fragile ecosystem.  The 1,500 scientists supporting the expansion of this national monument state in their letter to President Obama that “[t]here is a growing consensus among marine scientists that 30% of the oceans be set aside for adequate protection against human exploitation, yet only two percent presently benefits from full protection.”  A bigger sanctuary at Papahānaumokuākea would be a critical step in the right direction. 

The Surfrider Foundation has submitted a letter to President Obama supporting the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  

Want to learn more?  Follow the Papahānaumokuākea expansion movement on Facebook and Twitter.