The Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument (PRI Monument) lives up to its name – it comprises a series of islands and atolls in such a remote area of the Pacific Ocean that it is hard to think of another place in the world that could be farther from a human population center. Perhaps Antarctica? Unfortunately for marine life, the 9,000-plus miles between Washington, DC and the PRI Monument do not provide it protection from the Trump administration. It is among the ten national monuments the administration is considering rolling back federal protections for. Two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, have already been stripped of more than half of their area and opened to uranium, coal, oil, and gas extraction, changes that are currently being challenged in federal court.
The PRI Monument was originally established by President George W. Bush in 2009 under the federal Antiquities Act in order to protect the rich biodiversity of the region’s island ecosystems. The Antiquities Act has been used for more than 100 years by presidents of both parties to help protect federally owned lands and waters that contain historic landmarks, prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest from exploitation and destruction. At the recommendation of leading scientists, President Barack Obama expanded the PRI Monument in 2014 to protect wide-ranging species like sea turtles, whales, and sharks.
Home to some of the healthiest coral reef ecosystems in US territorial waters, the PRI Monument is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, encompassing 490,343 square miles of islands, atolls, reefs, and ocean area. Representing one of the last frontiers for wildlife, this sprawling monument is home to diverse populations of sharks, seabirds and shorebirds, sea turtles, endangered monk seals, whales, and dolphins. Colonies of marine birds, including the albatross, inhabit the monument’s small islands, which resemble classic “desert islands” with white sand beaches and sparkling blue waters.
Palmyra Island – one of islands in the monument where Shark Stewards has been studying local shark populations and other key marine species – supports the second largest colony of red-footed boobies in the world, endemic geckos, and the largest invertebrate on the planet: the endangered coconut crab, which is over 3 feet long and weighs more than 4 pounds.
The islands, however, are only one aspect of the monument. Of more importance are the remote ocean ecosystems that are protected from commercial fishing and other forms of degradation. The marine ecosystem here supports many critical species including the threatened green sea turtle and endangered hawksbill turtle, as well as healthy populations of several apex marine predators, such as reef sharks and tiger sharks, which are vanishing from our oceans due to overfishing and the shark fin trade.
The waters here also play host to numerous marine mammals. Humpback whales can be found during the winter months – the same population that is spotted annually around the Hawaiian Islands. During the summer months, these humpbacks head to the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska, and are also known to interact with the California population of humpbacks. Additionally, spinner and bottlenose dolphins and melon-headed whales are often spotted by researchers among the islands.
Strong science exists demonstrating that areas outside and adjacent to marine protected areas benefit from an increase in fish populations when the core sanctuary area is protected. They also serve as a source of fish larvae that can disperse to nearby areas that have been overfished, as well as reef-building coral larvae that can help restore coral reefs impacted directly by humans, climate change, or other stressors. The PRI Monument is a prime example of how marine sanctuaries benefit not only wildlife, but also commercial fisheries outside their boundaries.
Last December, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released recommendations that the Trump Administration shrink the size of the PRI Monument (as well as other national monuments) and possibly open the area to commercial fishing. Although Trump has not yet taken action on Zinke’s recommendation for the monument, he is expected to at any time. If Trump does go ahead and open the PRI Monument to commercial fishing, fishermen will likely be able to use longlines and tuna seiners in these waters. That would have a devastating impact on the region’s fragile ecology and many protected species that have found a safe haven here. Sharks, marine mammals – including critically endangered monk seals – and sea turtles would be especially at risk of getting entangled in longlines and tuna seiners and dying as a result.
Thankfully, the administration’s plan may not hold up in court. Most legal scholars do not believe the president can unilaterally shrink national monuments, and argue that only Congress can remove or alter a national monument designation.
President Trump’s December executive order shrinking the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments was immediately challenged in court by several Native American tribes and environmental organizations. That case is still pending and will have important implications for any action Trump takes to gut the PRI Monument and other areas on Zinke’s hit list.
Earth Island’s new legal arm, Earth Island Advocates, which is developing and coordinating environmental litigation on behalf of Earth Island projects, is teaming up with Shark Stewards and the International Marine Mammal Project to challenge any action the Trump administration may take to weaken protections for the PRI Monument. If and when that day comes, we will be ready with a lawsuit that, as Earth Island General Counsel Sumona Majumdar says, “challenges Trump and his unilateral attempt to open yet another public treasure to private exploitation.” And what’s more, we have some heavy hitters on our side – the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic and UC Irvine Environmental Law Clinic will be representing Earth Island in this case on a pro-bono basis.
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