Obama Just Quadrupled The World’s Largest Natural Sanctuary

Bigeye soldierfish underneath coral at Rapture Reef, French Frigate Shoals, in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. CREDIT: NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION.
Bigeye soldierfish underneath coral at Rapture Reef, French Frigate Shoals, in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. CREDIT: NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION.

The expansion will cover more than 7,000 marine species in Hawaii, including whales, sea turtles, and corals.

President Barack Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, the White House announced Friday. The move creates the largest marine protected area in the world and massively restricts fishing and development off the northwestern Hawaiian islands.

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Papahānaumokuākea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2010, is a marine ecosystem of near-pristine reefs and a critical habitat for 14 million seabirds. In the past, the area has suffered from damaging international shipping activities, such as fuel spills during ship groundings and accidental discharges, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

It also faces the threats of human-caused climate change, including warming waters and acidification that bleach corals, and more powerful storms that will likely flood low-lying islands within the monument, and harm endangered bird habitat, according to a NOAA report published earlier this week.

Obama, who was born and raised in Hawaii, is set to visit the area Sept. 1, Reuters reported, to increase attention to climate change and its effects on the oceans. According to NOAA, Papahānaumokuākea is among the places most vulnerable to climate change.

Quadrupling the size of Papahānaumokuāke is Obama’s latest conservation push, and the boldest in size as his mandate nears its end. Though even before this expansion Obama had already permanently protected more than 265 million acres of land and water.

While many of his efforts to act on the effects of climate change have faced congressional opposition and litigation, Obama has executive powers to unilaterally create national monuments.

Environmental organizations welcomed the move.

“There’s no better time for such a bold move in ocean conservation,” said Sarah Chasis, director of the oceans program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “This act — to build resilience in our oceans, and sustain the diversity and productivity of sea life — could usher in a new century of conservation for our most special, and fragile, ocean areas.”

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Over the past few years advocates and researchers have called for wider sea life conservation and better ocean management worldwide as overfishing and historic bleaching events continue at an accelerated pace. Marine conservation have expanded and yet globally only about 3 percent of the oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet, enjoy some sort of protection

The designation also has its share of critics. “Excluding American citizens from American waters and forcing in this case fishermen onto the high seas to do their business — something just doesn’t quite sit right,” said Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, to Reuters.

Martin said he was “disappointed” Hawaii Gov. David Ige supported expanding the monument, according to NBC, and noted the expansion would be based on political and not scientific reasons.

A Hawaiian monk seal is hauled out of a large net at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. CREDIT: NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION.
A Hawaiian monk seal is hauled out of a large net at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. CREDIT: NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION.

His comments come as longline fishermen have been commended in the past for sustainable fishing, and use the area for an estimated 3 to 13 percent of their annual tuna catch.

Obama announced this just as the country celebrates the National Park Service’s centennial.

Meanwhile, studies note that conservation and fishing restrictions are sorely needed. A 2015 World Wildlife Fund study found that marine populations have declined 49 percent between 1970 and 2012. Moreover, the world is a long way from repopulating already-depleted species, and most countries don’t have legally-mandated fishery management.

“Expanding Papahānaumokuākea makes a definitive statement about Hawaii’s and the United States’ commitment to ocean conservation,” said Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). “By adopting my proposal to expand the monument, President Obama has created a safe zone that will replenish stocks of tuna, promote biodiversity, and fight climate change.”

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Then-President George W. Bush first established Papahānaumokuāke a decade ago, in what came to be the world’s largest marine reserve with close to 140,000 square miles of protected ocean around the Hawaiian archipelago. His actions inspired a series of similar projects around the world.

With Obama’s expansion, the monument will now cover 442,781 square miles, more than 7,000 marine species, and a coral that is the world’s oldest-known living organism — more than 4,000 years old.