Editor’s note: This post was updated on July 27, 2017. NOAA will formally reopen the public comment period for 15 days starting Monday, July 31.
U.S. President Donald Trump has issued an unprecedented executive order instructing the Department of the Interior to review all national monuments greater than 100,000 acres created since 1996. After the review, the president could attempt to shrink or delist these national monuments — an action that, while likely to be challenged in court, could have severe consequences for the conservation of the United States’ critical natural areas. Conservation International’s (CI) senior vice president for oceans, ‘Aulani Wilhelm — a Native Hawaiian and the monument’s first superintendent — considers the importance of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, one of the national monuments on the chopping block.
At a time when the United States should be celebrating the 11th anniversary of one of the best presidential decisions ever made to protect the ocean — the establishment of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument — American citizens are instead being asked their opinion on whether or not it should exist at all.
Yet, Americans have already spoken overwhelmingly in support of strong protections for this special ocean region for over 20 years, including every public process held since 1998. Today Papahānaumokuākea enjoys widespread support from local to international levels. It’s incomprehensible, then, that this global pioneer in the engagement of indigenous people in management and large-scale ocean conservation would be placed under “review.”
‘Āina Momona — Place of Abundance
Simply put, Papahānaumokuākea is one of the most extraordinary ocean places on the planet. This 1,200-mile stretch of reefs, islands and atolls is exceptionally rare. Teeming with life, it reminds us humans how oceans should function when healthy: able to provide food, oxygen and well-being for both people and nature.
It is also a significant cultural place for Native Hawaiians. Our creation story tells us our oldest non-human ancestor is the coral polyp from which all other higher forms of nature — including us — descend. Because of this kinship, we understand that not only do people need nature, but people are nature. Protecting Papahānaumokuākea is not only about rare and diverse species and unique geology — it is about protecting and securing a future for generations to come, and understanding that we simply can’t borrow from the future any longer.
When designating Papahānaumokuākea as a Marine National Monument in 2006, President George W. Bush said, “This is a big deal!” And it was. The ocean — and the problems it faces — are huge. So are the protections that Papahānaumokuākea provide. In fact, the monument is the largest actively managed conservation area in the world, land or sea — bigger than all U.S. national parks combined.
A designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO — as well as one of only 15 Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas designated by the International Maritime Organization and a national Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve for nearly 20 years — Papahānaumokuākea’s impact is proven. These management designations have resulted in groundbreaking scientific findings that uncovered the world’s oldest living animal, a 4,500-year-old deep-water coral, as well as dozens of new species. Research has also uncovered significant genetic variation and diversity, which provide the opportunity for us to understand the potential for adaptation and resilience as our oceans continue to warm and become more acidic due to climate change.
Strong management and strict national and international requirements to access the area have led to a near-zero record of illegal fishing in the region since its inception. The area also has the strongest water quality standards in the country related to discharge, hull inspections and ballast water. And if that weren’t enough, because of its designation as a marine protected area (MPA), more than US$ 100 million have been infused into Hawaii’s economy in the first 10 years alone.
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The impact hasn’t only been local.
The creation of Papahānaumokuākea and the other U.S. Pacific marine national monuments established the United States as a global leader in marine conservation, creating new models for managing large-scale and remote ocean areas. This work has been replicated very quickly. There are now 18 large-scale sites in the world encompassing nearly 10 million square kilometers (3,861,022 square miles, an area slightly larger than the United States). The establishment of large-scale MPAs is arguably the single largest driver for the dramatic increase in ocean protection globally, something the United States should be proud of.
Seven presidents should be enough
Prior to joining CI, I had the great privilege of leading the community, public and political process to protect the marine waters of this place alongside many amazing people. This endeavor of over 16 years resulted first in the creation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Island Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve by President Bill Clinton in 2000 (the first large-scale, remote MPA to be created in the world and the largest at the time), then a marine national monument by President George W. Bush. Last year, the monument was expanded by President Obama.
These designations followed actions by four other presidents, both Democrat and Republican, dating back to the early 1900s when Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order to stop the slaughter of seabirds in the area. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Regan each took subsequent executive actions in recognition of the need to protect the long-term natural, cultural and historical values of the region in the face of short-term exploitation. With each new designation protections became stronger, our understanding of the values of the ocean to people grew and a little more of our extraordinary planet was protected for future generations.
Shouldn’t decisive action by seven presidents provide enough certainty that this place is critical to protect?
It is going to take all of us
No matter the ocean, the shoreline or the community, the stories of decline and struggle are the same against the confluence of impacts from climate change, pollution, plastic and our insatiable demand for seafood. But places like Papahānaumokuākea and the other Pacific marine national monuments facing review offer stories of hope and demonstrate the resilience of nature to provide for us — if we do our part as humans to protect them.
At Conservation International, we believe in equity for both people and nature. Marine national monuments are important conservation tools to ensure the ocean can continue to provide the essential benefits we need to thrive. After all, the stability of life on our planet depends on the stability of life in our oceans.
We stand with the hundreds of thousands of people who have fought so hard to secure the highest possible protections for this special place. Protecting all of our oceans will take a unified effort, starting with securing the continued protection of places like Papahānaumokuākea.
Thankfully, there are several efforts underway by citizens across the United States to defend Papahānaumokuākea and the other monuments in question.
‘Aulani Wilhelm is senior vice president for oceans at Conservation International.