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A group of roughly 20 Native Hawaiians, local fishermen, scientists and conservationists rallied Thursday morning at Kewalo Marine Laboratory, armed with a 43,000-signature petition urging President Barack Obama to expand federal protections around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
President George W. Bush established Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006 as, at the time, the largest fully protected marine reserve on the planet. Its protections, which include prohibitions against commercial fishing, extend 50 miles outside the island chain.
The group wants Obama to expand the monument to the maximum limit that federal jurisdiction allows — 200 miles out, with certain exceptions. That would make it nine times its current size of 139,797 square miles, and 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 and the world’s oldest marine animal, the black coral, which lives some 4,500 years.
“I can think of no better use of the Antiquities Act than protecting the world’s oldest animal,” said Doug McCauley, a University of California Santa Barbara professor.
He said Chicago may have been chosen to host the presidential library, but Hawaii stands to get something “much better than old books.”
William Aila, former chair of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and current deputy director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, urged Obama to be bold and expand the monument.
“What President Obama has in his hands is the future of this world,” he said. “And we have his back.”
Aila was one of seven prominent Native Hawaiians who sent the president a letter in February calling for expansion of the monument this year, the 10th anniversary of Papahanaumokuakea’s creation.
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 played host. Officials in Honolulu have been gearing up for the event, and the Legislature just approved an additional $4 million to put it together.
State Rep. Chris Lee, who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said there’s been growing support from a diverse community to expand the monument.
In April, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group wrote the White House Council on Environmental Quality proposing expansion of the monument and inviting the Obama administration to travel to Hawaii to discuss the idea.
The Obama administration sent a delegation this week to meet with stakeholders, including Native Hawaiians, scientists, local fishermen and the conservation community, who presented cultural and scientific evidence to support expanding the monument to fully protect the cultural, historical, and biological significance of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, according to a release.
The group proposes making an exception for the waters surrounding Niihau and Kauai, along with two weather buoys used by fishermen as fish-aggregating devices. The group also wants the president to designate the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a co-trustee on the management committee.
“We have seen the decline in tuna populations that long-line fishing in Hawaii has caused, subjecting Hawaiians and Hawaii residents to import ahi poke from other countries,” Jay Carpio, a local fishermen from Maui who has been leading education and support efforts with local fishermen, said in the release.
“Our local pono fishermen across the Hawaiian Islands are now standing up to this mostly foreign fishing industry,” he said. “Fishermen like the late Uncle Buzzy Agard led the effort to establish Papahanaumokuakea, and local fishermen are again leading the call to President Obama to expand the monument.”
Rick Gaffney, a longtime fisherman from Kona, told reporters that expanding the monument will translate to more fish locally, in part because it protects important breeding areas.