Hawai‘i aims to more than double ‘effectively managed’ ocean by 2030

Sunset in Kauai, Hawai'i.

Sunset in Kauai, Hawai’i. (© Luana Luna)

Editor’s note: Last week, Hawai‘i made waves with U.S. President Barack Obama’s expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), a stretch of islets and waters in the far northwestern (and largely unpopulated) reaches of the Hawaiian archipelago. The expansion made PMNM the largest marine protected area in the world.

The waters of the main Hawaiian islands, however, are no less threatened — climate change alone will worsen coral bleaching throughout the state, which we witnessed for the first time in 2015. To maintain the health of its waters and marine life, the governor of Hawai‘i announced at the opening of the World Conservation Congress today that the state will set a target for “effective management” over 30 percent of its nearshore waters by 2030. 

In a recent interview, Jack Kittinger, senior director of Conservation International’s Hawai‘i program, explained what this means.

Question: Let’s start out with the basics. What would you say is the biggest overall threat to the oceans around Hawai‘i’s main islands?

Answer: There isn’t just one — there are several major threats. But I’d say my top four are climate change (including coral bleaching from high water temperatures, and ocean acidification), land-based pollution (in particular sedimentation and marine debris, but also nutrients and other pollutants), invasive species and overfishing.

Q: What’s at stake, then, for Hawai‘i in terms of taking better care of its waters?

A: Hawai‘i’s coral reefs are a local and national treasure. They provide cultural, economic and recreational benefits both to our residents and to the more than 8 million people who visit the state every year. They are a huge driver of our economy, generating more than US$ 360 million a year. They also have an incalculable cultural value. They nourish, protect and provide for our communities. We are tied to the ocean, so our fates are intertwined.

Q: “Effective management” — what does that mean?

A: “Effective management” includes a suite of adaptive management approaches balancing sustainable use, restoration and conservation measures such as community-based management, time and area closures for fisheries replenishment, reasonable laws to encourage sustainable fishing practices and effective enforcement, combined with systematized monitoring to assess effectiveness. This is not an effort to make 30 percent of the state’s waters “no take.”

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Q: Why 30 percent?

A: A significant and wide body of research in the scientific literature shows that at least 30 percent of nearshore reef areas need to be healthy and functional to maintain the productivity of a reef region like ours in the Hawaiian archipelago. We need 25 to 30 percent of habitat under some kind of conservation in order to keep it productive, healthy and resilient to threats, both human and natural. So that’s what CI and our partners — the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Promise to Pae‘Āina partnership, which includes the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and 60 other organizations — have supported.

The governor’s commitment for marine stewardship complements a commitment to protect 30 percent of our lands; it is part of Hawai‘i’s Aloha+ Challenge targets, a set of goals that have been agreed upon by all the mayors, the governor and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Q: How does the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea affect conservation in the main islands?

A: Our reefs and coastal waters in the main Hawaiian islands face a range of both local and global threats. By comparison, Papahānaumokuākea is an extraordinary place where nearly all local stressors have been addressed, but it also shares the same risks from global climate change.

Papahānaumokuākea is not separate from the main Hawaiian islands. It is a single, interconnected archipelago. Stewardship efforts in Papahānaumokuākea have already led to changes in how communities engage in conservation in the main Hawaiian Islands, and these efforts continue today. We have already achieved comprehensive conservation in Papahānaumokuākea; the 30 by 30 commitment ensures that we scale our efforts in the main Hawaiian Islands to meet the challenges that our communities face. Together, this links stewardship from the big island of Hawai‘i to Kure Atoll, a whole-archipelago conservation and stewardship approach.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. Jack Kittinger is the senior director of Conservation International’s Hawai‘i.

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