Epeli Hau‘ofa, the famous Pacific Island anthropologist, once wrote: “… the sea is as real as you and I, … it shapes the character of this planet, … it is a major source of our sustenance, …it is something we all share in common wherever we are in Oceania…. the sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.”

Never before has there been a greater opportunity or greater need to act upon these sentiments. President Barack Obama has before him the option of expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to include, not only the remote islands and their near shore waters, but also the deep waters, which are life-sustaining for seabirds, sharks, sea turtles and whales.

If he does so, it would create the largest marine protected network on earth, four times larger than California.

It isn’t just environmentalists who support this unique chance to create the largest strongly protected marine network on earth, support for the monument has gained steam from respected political and cultural leaders across the Pacific islands who want to preserve this area as part of their heritage.

Red snapper, Lutjanus bohar, eating a Diadema sea urchin on the fore reef of Kingman Reef, 10 m depth. The red snapper is the second most abundant  predator at Kingman Reef, second only to sharks. They are voracious predators that eat everything from fishes to giant clams to sea urchins.

Red snapper, Lutjanus bohar, eating a Diadema sea urchin on the fore reef of Kingman Reef, 10 meters below the surface. They are a part of the remarkably diverse sea life in the area.

Enric Sala

Within a matter of days, more than 200 political and cultural leaders from across Oceania signed on to support the monument expansion by writing to President Obama and saying, “Greater protections of our beloved ocean are long overdue; we welcome these acts that protect our sea from misuse and abuse while honoring and protecting the subsistence and cultural traditions that have been a part of our livelihoods and seafaring traditions since the beginning of time.”

In addition, these same leaders in Oceania reminded the president that the region makes up a “Pacific family; it is our ancestral honor to protect the endangered, threatened and over-exploited species insufficiently protected by the current boundaries.”

This is an unprecedented moment; it has unified both cultural practitioners and conservation scientists in a vision for a protected Pacific.

Some of the Pacific’s leading conservation scientists who work on one Palmyra Atoll, one of the islands where the expansion would occur, support this expansion.

They stated that the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument “is a truly unique and special place, of global significance for conservation. It contains some of the last pristine tropical ecosystems that remain intact and undisturbed by humans. Our years of research in this area suggest that the significance of increased protection for the marine biodiversity in this area cannot be underestimated. There are only a handful of other places in the world, such as Chagos Island in the Indian Ocean, where this type of protection currently occurs. Just as the establishment of Yellowstone National Park was an ambitious action in its time that created a legacy of protection for wide-ranging terrestrial species like bison, grizzly bear, and elk – so will the establishment of (the remote Pacific marine conservation) serve as a lasting monument for protecting America’s sharks, marine mammals, sea turtles, manta rays, tuna – and many more.”

If Obama moves forward with the expansion, he would stand with several presidents of Pacific nations that would also benefit from the expansion. These presidents include: President Anote Tong of Kiribati, President Tommy Remengasau of Palau, and the Prime Minister Henry Puna of the Cook Islands.

These leaders have all pledged to establish transformative marine protected areas in collaboration with the U.S expansion in response to this era of overfishing and climate change.

In an address given in Honolulu on Aug. 13, Secretary of State John Kerry further articulated the Obama Administration’s plan for the Pacific when he said, “The Pacific Islands across the entire Pacific are vulnerable to climate change. And just yesterday, I saw with my own eyes what sea level rise would do to parts of it: It would be devastating — entire habitats destroyed, entire populations displaced from their homes, in some cases entire cultures wiped out. They just had flash flooding in Guadalcanal — unprecedented amounts of rainfall. And that’s what’s happened with climate change — unprecedented storms, unprecedented typhoons, unprecedented hurricanes, unprecedented droughts, unprecedented fires, major damage, billions and billions of dollars of damage being done, that we’re paying for instead of investing those billions of dollars in avoiding this in the first place.

That’s why we are deepening our partnerships with the Pacific Island nations and others to meet immediate threats and long-term development challenges. And we’re working through USAID and other multilateral institutions to increase the resilience of communities. And we’re elevating our engagement through the Pacific Islands Forum. And we’ve signed maritime boundaries, new maritime boundaries with Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia in order to promote good governance of the Pacific Ocean and peaceful relations among island nations.

And we’re also working on a Pacific pathway of marine protected areas that includes President Obama’s commitment to explore a protected area of more than a million square miles in size in the U.S. remote Pacific. (Emphasis added.)

Despite all the important scientific conservation reasons to protect this glorious and pristine ecosystem, the most compelling ones for the Hawaiian community are ultimately personal and cultural ones.

It turns out that intermittently, over the last century, hundreds of Native Hawaiians have lived on these remote islands.

Among these were Uncles Eddie Kaanana and Walter Paulo, both from the Hawaiian fishing village of Milolii. Both men came back to Hawaii and dedicated their lives to teaching Hawaiian children about their culture and sustainability.

The first Native Hawaiians to live on these islands in modern history were a group known as Hui Panalaau. As the first colonists of these islands for the United States, it is safe to say that this marine monument would not be possible today without their tremendous contribution.

In a letter to President Obama regarding the monument expansion, artist and scholar Noelle Kahanu wrote: “This is my dream. That you would care as much about the cultural and historical significance of the islands in the Pacific Remote Islands Monument as you do about their scientific value.

That you would care as much about those whose sacrifice made these islands U.S. territories in the first place, such that they are even under consideration for expansion today.

That you would care enough to recognize the contributions of the men of Hui Panalaau, which consisted of over 130 young men from Hawaii who were sent by the federal government to colonize Howland, Baker, and Jarvis from 1935-1942.

That you would care enough to officially recognize the sacrifices of these men, including three young Hawaiians who lost their lives — Carl Kahalewai, of a ruptured appendix in 1938, and Joseph Keliihananui and Dickey Whaley, from a Japanese air attack in 1941.

That by an act of good faith recognition, you would undo the silence and finally address nearly 80 years of injustice — including the denial of death benefits to the families of Keliihananui and Whaley.

That you would understand that before we can preserve island and ocean ecosystems, we must fundamentally understand their significance to the peoples of Oceania.

For Pacific Islanders, our genealogies are not found in trails but on the waves.

That in the name of preserving the “world’s most valuable ocean ecosystems,” you would not whitewash colonial expansionist and militaristic policies that resulted in the targeted use and misuse of young Hawaiian men.

And finally, while such preservation today cannot undo the exploitation of the past, thoughtful, inclusive and honest dialogue and action can aid in healing as we build toward tomorrow’s future.

I stand before you today as the granddaughter of George Hawae Kahanu, Sr., who at 96 is one of the last three colonists still alive.

As such, I call upon you, President Obama — if you truly care about extending protections to the Pacific Remote Islands Monument — to recognize that it is equally a memorial. And that the men of Hui Panalaau deserve to be recognized before the last of them leave this earth.

The United States has an extraordinary opportunity to step forward, retracing the steps of its colonial past, to help secure a sustainable future by creating this expanded marine monument.

If the commitments made towards a safe and secure Asia Pacific region by Secretary Kerry are sincere, then the full expansion of this monument, both in geographic size and historic and cultural integrity are necessities.

Historic and cultural integrity demands that the honors called for in Kahanu’s letter be fulfilled and that the sacrifices made by Native Hawaiians in this monument must not be forgotten.

Further, lessons from other large scale Marine Protected Areas should also be heeded. While many of the claims of special interest groups opposing the expansion and other conservation activities are unfounded and akin to the rhetoric of climate-change deniers, conservationists would be remiss if they did not take this opportunity to better engage local communities and traditional cultural practitioners.

It is abundantly clear that the region, and perhaps the world, is counting on the president to institute better cultural leadership and management in this monument than the monument created by his predecessor. Subsistence rights should be fully protected, planned and granted, guided by sound and established practices and traditions.

Our fervent hope is that a peaceful and healthy Pacific will teach the rest of the world to see the planet as we do: calm, bountiful, and boundless.

We understand that the ocean does not divide us; it binds us. These were the pathways of our ancestors; they can surely be again for our descendants. For Pacific Islanders, our genealogies are not found in trails but on the waves. We are, in our heart, one Oceania, and the full expansion of this monument helps move us all closer to ensuring for future generations the opportunity to carry on the abundant natural and cultural heritage of our proud, shared past.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.