The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is over a thousand miles long. The reserve encompasses the atolls and formations that make up the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It’s one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, encompassing nearly 140,000 square miles of the Pacific–more land area than all of America’s National Parks combined, in fact. If superimposed on a map of the continental United States, the archipelago would stretch from Chesapeake Bay in Virginia to South Dakota’s eastern border.
It was first created a decade ago–by President George W. Bush, of all people. “Our duty is to use the land and seas wisely, or sometimes not use them at all,” Bush said at the time. “Good stewardship of the environment is not just a personal responsibility, it is a public value.”
When Bush said those words, the monument was the largest marine reserve in the world. Today’s it’s slipped to the 10th biggest, but if U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, D–Hawaii, has his way, President Barack Obama will expand the monument to five times its current area–more than 580,000 square miles. If that happens, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM) will once again become the largest marine protected area in the world.
“A thoughtful expansion of the PMNM will continue Hawaii’s long history of sustainable use of the land and oceans into the future, and help ensure that we can give our children the legacy of a healthy, vibrant Pacific Ocean,” Schatz wrote in a June 16 letter to Obama–exactly 10 years and one day after Bush officially created the monument. “As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the PMNM, I believe this proposal aptly recognizes that milestone.”
Access to the monument is strictly restricted, and rightly so. The coral reefs (and sparkling white atolls, which are formed from ancient, crushed coral) that make up the PMNM are home to more than 7,000 distinct marine species, according to public relations materials produced by the officials who manage the monument. These species include the green turtle (classified as threatened), the Hawaii monk seal (endangered) and 22 species of seabirds (monument officials estimate that 14 million birds make their homes in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands). One of those birds, the Laysan Duck, is considered to be “the world’s most endangered duck.”
Though the monument (except for Midway Island) is part of Hawaii, not everyone here welcomes the idea of expansion. The reason is simple fear: closing off such a vast tract of ocean would harm Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry. In fact, Schatz says that expanding the monument will actually help Hawaii’s fishing industry.
“The best available science indicates that expanding the PMNM will strengthen an ecosystem that sustains tuna, swordfish, seabirds, sea turtles, and Hawaiian monk seals,” Schatz said in his letter to Obama. “This strengthening will, in turn, support more productive fisheries outside the PMNM and provide a vigorous carbon sink to combat climate change. Protecting this region more thoroughly will also preserve undiscovered biodiversity for future discoveries, and maintain a reservoir of genetic diversity that will allow marine species the greatest possible chance of adapting to environmental change. Moreover, the expanded region contains significant bio-cultural resources and archaeological sites that further justify use of the Antiquities Act.”
The islands–especially Nihoa and Mokumanamana (which is also known as Necker Island)–are extremely important in Hawaiian history and culture. “Based on radiocarbon data, it’s been estimated that Nihoa and Mokumanamana could have been inhabited from 1000 A.D. to 1700 A. D.,” states the official Papahanaumokuakea website. “Nihoa Island, where there is significant soil development, has over 88 cultural sites, including ceremonial, residential, and agricultural features. Mokumanamana Island has 52 cultural sites, including ceremonial and temporary habitation features.”
More recently (well, relatively), the monument is the final resting place for many shipwrecks, including the bones of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, sunk at the battle of Midway in June 1942 (if the monument expands, its new borders will include the wrecks of the four Japanese carriers also lost at that battle–the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu. Other wrecks in the monument include the American whaler Parker (lost in 1842), the British sailing vessel Dunnottar Castle (lost in 1886) and the American submarine rescue ship Macaw (lost in 1943).
For these and other reasons, a group of Native Hawaiian activists and officials asked Obama back in January to expand the monument. “The name Papahanaumokuakea commemorates the union of two Hawaiian ancestors–Papahanaumoku and Wakea–who gave rise to the Hawaiian archipelago and our people,” stated the Jan. 29 letter, signed by William Aila, Kamana‘opono Crabbe, Isaac Harp, Kekuewa Kikiloi, Kaleo Manuel, Victoria Holt Takamine and Nainoa Thompson. “Native Hawaiians remain deeply connected to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding waters on genealogical, cultural and spiritual levels.”
The Hawaiians signing the letter called the monument “a unique and generally isolated ocean gem.” Expansion, they say, is vital because of climate change.
“While the current boundary of Papahanaumokuakea includes vital habitat for a number of species, it does not fully protect habitat and travel routes for several species including Hawaiian Monk Seals, green sea turtles, sharks, whales, Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses as well as other species,” states the letter. “Additionally, large, fully protected marine reserves and sanctuaries are more resilient to climate change and therefore have emerged as important to mitigating the impacts of our warming planet.”
In a Feb. 16 Honolulu Civil Beat story on the letter, Thompson added that expanding the PMNM would be a “give to the children of the Earth.”
But on May 3, a separate group of 30 state legislators also wrote to Obama. They asked him not to expand the monument. In fact, they say the monument has already damaged Hawaii’s fishing industry.
“The fishing and seafood industry is an integral part of Hawaii’s culture, identity, and economy,” stated that letter, signers of which included House Speaker Joe Souki, D–Wailuku and Representatives Lynn DeCoite, D–East Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Angus McKelvey, D–West Maui and Kyle Yamashita, D–Upcountry. “While we understand the intent of the creation of the Monument, we do not support any expansion of the size and scope of the Monument. The use restrictions that apply within the Monument’s boundaries have already eliminated 50% of Hawaii’s bottomfish fishery, which includes 17 permits, including those dedicated to indigenous Native Hawaiian fishing communities. Hawaii’s bottomfish supply, which includes fish such as onaga and opakapaka, is not completely dependent on individual Main Hawaiian Islands bottomfish fishermen and import. This was a direct result of the declaration of the Monument.”
At the same time, Governor David Ige also seemed hesitant to support expansion. “Generally, some expansion of the national marine monument makes sense,” Ige said in a May 12 Civil Beat story. “There are concerns from commercial fishermen, especially in areas around Kauai and Niihau, so I think there would be a way to take these concerns into consideration.”
But Schatz’s June 16 proposal actually includes provision to help Kauai and Ni’ihau fishing interests. His letter to Obama says there should be no expansion “of the current southeastern boundary of the PMNM east of 163º West Longitude towards the Main Hawaiian Islands.” This carve-out would include “a particularly active fishing spot near NOAA Weather Buoy 51101,” according to Schatz’s letter.
That concession to the fishing industry seems to alleviated much of the concern over expansion. “Like the Polynesians who first settled these islands, we can balance the management of this unique natural habitat and its historic artifacts with the needs of the human population,” Ige said on June 16 when Schatz released his proposal to the media. “Sen. Schatz has addressed many of the concerns I’ve heard about the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and has proposed reasonable accommodations for local fishers who are helping to feed our families. I look forward to the public process as it moves forward.”
What’s more, Rep. McKelvey–who signed the May 3 letter urging Obama reject expansion–told us that he’s changed his mind. Schatz’s proposal is okay with him.
“Senator Schatz has addressed the concerns that I had regarding the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and has proposed reasonable accommodations for local fishers who help feed our families,” McKelvey said in a June 24 email. “Senator Schatz’s June 16th proposal that includes a carve-out for Kauai and Ni‘ihau fishermen has alleviated my concerns regarding the monument’s expansion.” (Representatives Souki, DeCoite and Yamashita didn’t respond to our requests for comment.)
So that’s pretty much it. Except, of course, that Obama hasn’t actually expanded the monument yet. “The president is likely to make the designation at some point in the next few months, according to several individuals who have been briefed on the process but asked for anonymity because no final decision has been made,” The Washington Post reported on June 16.
Cover photo courtesy Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Proposed expansion map courtesy Senator Schatz’s office