Obama Declares World’s Largest Protected Area in Hawaii

Although only a meager three percent of the ocean’s waters are protected, President Obama’s recent expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii is a welcome addition.

On August 26th, President Obama announced the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii to four times its original size. Papahānaumokuākea covers 582,578 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers) of land and sea in the northwest of the archipelago, making it the world’s largest protected area.

During his time in office, Obama has protected a staggering 548 million acres of federal land and water. The executive authority created by the Antiquities Act of 1906 allows U.S. presidents to create national monuments out of public lands. Congress must create national parks. However, while Obama has created more national monuments than any other president, he is not the first to protect areas of Hawaii.

Expanding the monument

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, established Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006. Together, Bush and Obama are the most recent of no fewer than seven presidents to pass legislation protecting parts of Hawaii, the first of which was President Roosevelt in 1909. Nevertheless, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who first proposed the recent expansion last year, said of Obama’s announcement that “this is one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans.”

Benefits of the new monument

Senator Schatz goes on to explain the expansion’s multiple benefits. According to him, Papahānaumokuākea will “replenish stocks of ‘ahi, promote biodiversity, fight climate change and give greater voice to native Hawaiians in managing this resource.”

Many agencies, including environmental groups, research organizations and native communities, support the expansion. The reserve will still allow recreational fishing, scientific research and resource removal for traditional cultural purposes.

However, the monument will prohibit commercial activities, including fishing and deep-sea mining. This effectively closes 60 percent of Hawaii’s federal waters for business. Inevitably, the ban has caused considerable controversy, with the local fishing industry voicing most of the complaints. Longline fishermen claim they will suffer most, since they have travel long distances to catch fish. Hawaii’s longline industry has an annual value of over $100 million. However, federal officials claim that the fishermen catch much of their quota in international waters.

Criticism of the monument

Members of the Republican party have also criticized the announcement. They claim that such a large expansion infringes on the terms of the Antiquities Act, which state that monuments “must be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

Marine scientists note that the pelagic nature of many marine species makes the monument’s large size necessary. Despite the controversy, the region’s ecology will undoubtedly thrive thanks to increased protection. Hawaii’s Northwestern Islands are home to more than 7,000 marine species. This includes 24 species of cetacean and five species of protected sea turtle. The area provides an important feeding ground for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. It also constitutes some of the world’s most prolific seabird breeding and nesting sites. In particular, the Northwestern Islands are home to 99.7 percent of the world’s Laysan albatross population.

The monument will have cultural benefits as well, and native Hawaiian activists widely supported its creation. Former state official William Aila called Papahānaumokuākea a “cultural seascape.”

Traditional customs, such as long-distance voyaging and wayfinding, will continue within the sanctuary. Director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program Matt Rand said of the monument that it must be preserved “as a window to the past and for future generations,” both in terms of its cultural integrity and its exceptional biodiversity.