A group of seven prominent Native Hawaiians has asked President Barack Obama to expand federal protections around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
President George W. Bush established Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006 as the largest fully protected marine reserve on the planet at the time. Its protections, which include prohibitions against commercial fishing, extend 50 miles outside the island chain.
The group didn’t say in the letter how much it wants to expand the monument, but federal jurisdiction extends out to 200 miles. That would make it four times its current size of 139,797 square miles, which is bigger than all the country’s national parks combined.
The monument protects the habitat of more than 7,000 marine species, a quarter of which are believed to be found nowhere else. It’s also home to 14 million seabirds that nest there. (Learn how to pronounce “Papahanaumokuakea” here.)
The letter was signed by Hawaiian Home Lands Deputy Director William Aila, former chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources; Kamana‘opono Crabbe, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs; Nainoa Thompson, navigator and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society; Isaac “Paka” Harp, former commercial fisherman who was instrumental in the creation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in 2000; Kekuewa Kikiloi, assistant professor at the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii; Kaleo Manuel, environmental and community planner with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands; and Victoria Holt Takamine, a respected kumu hula who worked to transition the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve into the monument.
The group appealed to Obama as an “island boy from Hawaii” who understands the ocean’s importance.
“While the current boundary of Papahanaumokuakea includes vital habitat for a number of species, it does not fully protect habitat and travel routes for several species including Hawaiian Monk Seals, green sea turtles, sharks, whales, Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses as well as other species,” they said in the letter.
“Additionally, large, fully protected marine reserves and sanctuaries are more resilient to climate change and therefore have emerged as important to mitigating the impacts of our warming planet.”
The letter also underscores the significance of expanding the monument this year, the 10th anniversary of Papahanaumokuakea’s creation.
Thompson said in a statement that expanding Papahanaumokuakea would be “a gift to the children of the Earth.”
Although not mentioned in the letter, the timing is also ripe with Hawaii hosting the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in September.
The 10-day event is considered the Olympics of conservation, and it will be the first time the United States has hosted it. Officials in Honolulu have been gearing up for the event.
“Increasing the scale of Papahanaumokuakea would set the example to the entire world of our commitment to protection of marine sites and the growing importance of oceans in global heritage protection,” said Kikilo, who chairs the monument’s Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, in a statement.
“Papahanaumokuakea is a unique region of immense natural and cultural heritage and it is worthy of the highest levels of protection.”
The area is one of the few remaining predator-dominated ecosystems in the world, with strong populations of sharks, Hawaiian grouper and other large predatory fish that have been heavily overfished elsewhere, the letter says.
Apex predators represent more than half of the biomass in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, compared with 3 percent in the main Hawaiian Islands, the group noted.
Earlier this month, scientists said they discovered four new species of algae in waters 200 to 400 feet deep at Papahanaumokuakea.
Aila told the Washington Post that expanding Papahanaumokuakea would be a “legacy opportunity” for the president.
Last week, Obama protected more than 1.8 million acres of California desert by designating three national monuments. There are a number of other areas around the country that have also been proposed.
In 2014, Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument from nearly 87,000 square miles to more than 490,000 square miles in the central Pacific Ocean, making it the largest fully protected marine reserve. Bush established the monument in 2009.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is not an area Hawaii’s longline fleet targets, according to the most recent data on NOAA Fisheries’ website.
Of the 47.1 million hooks the Hawaii-based longline fishery deployed in 2014, 5 percent were in the northwestern Hawaiian islands exclusive economic zone. That’s the area the U.S. has jurisdiction over, which extends 200 miles outside the islands.
Read the group’s letter below.