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Obama Creates World’s Largest Protected Marine Area Off Hawaii

Expanded Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument is now more than twice the size of Texas

By Oliver Milman

Barack Obama has created the world’s largest marine protected area by expanding an existing ocean reserve off Hawaii to cover 582,578 square miles, providing what’s likely to be the grandest, and final, chapter in the president’s conservation legacy.

photo of  Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monumentphoto by NOAA’s National Ocean ServiceBigeye soldierfish in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The sweeping move quadruples the size of the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument, which was originally designated by George W. Bush in 2006 and was declared a World Heritage site in 2010.

The monument, which is now double the size of Texas, stretches outward from the north-western Hawaiian islands and includes Midway Atoll, famed for its former military base and eponymous battle that was crucial in the US defeat of Japan in the second world war. The protected area is now larger than the previous largest marine reserve, situated around the Pitcairn Islands and announced by the UK last year.

Conservationists had pushed for an expansion to the monument following recent research that discovered new species and important ecological connectivity in the area, as well as raised concerns for the ecosystem due to the impact of ocean acidification and coral decline driven by warming temperatures.

The White House said the decision will provide “critical protections” for more than 7,000 marine species, a quarter of them found nowhere else on Earth. The area is inhabited by whales, sea turtles and yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna, which are commonly referred to in Hawaii as ‘ahi. Swaths of black coral, the world’s longest-living marine species at more than 4,500 years, will also be protected.

“This is one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans,” said Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator for Hawaii.

“Expanding Papahānaumokuākea will replenish stocks of ‘ahi, promote biodiversity, fight climate change, and give a greater voice to Native Hawaiians in managing this resource. This declaration sets us on a strong path forward for our irreplaceable environment and the generations to come.”

The expansion of the ocean reserve has been mooted for some time and was expected to be announced at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, scheduled for next week in Hawaii. Obama will address the international gathering on Wednesday, before traveling to Midway Atoll to highlight the threat posed by climate change upon marine ecosystems.

The new designation is perhaps a fitting conservation denouement for Obama, who was born in Hawaii. The president has unilaterally protected more than 548m acres of land and water under the Antiquities Act during his administration — more than double what any of his predecessors have done. Some Republicans have bristled at this executive action and have put forward bills that would curb it.

The enlarged Papahānaumokuākea monument contains a number of treasures, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, around 14m seabirds and the Laysan duck, which is the world’s most endangered duck. The region includes six huge underwater volcanoes, one nearly 14,000ft high, and the USS Yorktown, which sank during the Battle of Midway and was discovered in 1998.

The seabed around the islands is also thought to contain deposits of nickel, zinc and titanium, making the region of potential interest to mining. Conservationists have been pressing for greater ocean protections to aid a marine environment that is challenged by a global coral bleaching event, overfishing, seabed mining, a plague of plastic pollution and a lack of accountability on the high seas – something the UN is seeking to address.

“Papahānaumokuākea inspired an international movement to safeguard large areas of ocean and create the world’s first generation of great parks in the sea,” said Joshua Reichert, an executive vice-president at Pew Trusts. “By expanding the monument, President Obama has increased protections for one of the most biologically and culturally significant places on the planet.”

The designation is not universally popular in Hawaii, however. Mining and commercial fishing will be banned in the area, although recreational fishing with a permit will be allowed to continue. Hawaii’s seafood industry has said this restriction will harm the state’s economy and will do little to protect the environment given that fishing in the area is done by individual long lines, rather than trawler nets that indiscriminately wipe out marine species.

“What many people for the expansion don’t know is even if this area is protected, foreign fishing vessels likely will continue to fish there as they please,” said Shane Yoshimoto, a fish buyer at the Honolulu Fish Auction, the only fresh tuna auction in the US.

“There is insufficient enforcement on the waters to control them, and if our industry is short on supply, foreign countries will be selling it back to us. This is fish and money that should have stayed here in Hawaii all along.”

But Matt Rand, director of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy project, said the economic impact “will be very limited.” He added: “Long lines certainly have an environmental impact. They are destructive. The fishermen can still catch all they can catch now, they just have to do it in a different area. We need areas that are off limits.”

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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