Expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM) is fully supported by leaders in the Native Hawaiian community because of the strong cultural connection to the land and the open ocean within PMNM. There is overwhelming support from the scientific community as well, offering peer-reviewed, unbiased data highlighting the benefits of the proposed expansion.

The hallmarks of a successful marine protected area are that they are large, remote, highly protected, protected for a long time and enforced. By these criteria Papahanaumokuakea is the ideal location for a marine protected area.

The current expansion proposal would increase the size of PMNM to 625,325 square miles, making it the world’s largest protected area. Scientists currently estimate that at least 30 percent of the ocean must be protected to ensure ocean resources will be available for future generations. Currently only about 2 percent of the world’s oceans are well protected.

Sharks and other large fish are common on most reefs throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, one of the few marine ecosystems remaining on the planet still dominated by apex predators.
Sharks are found at densities among the strongest in the world on reefs throughout the Papahnaumokuakea National Monument and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, one of the few marine ecosystems remaining on the planet still dominated by apex predators. Courtesy: James Watt

With few areas remaining that are relatively unimpacted by humans, Papahanaumokuakea represents a truly unique opportunity to make Hawaii a world leader in conservation.

Many of us think Hawaii is a special place unlike anywhere else on Earth, and the science agrees. The main Hawaiian islands have long been known to have the world’s highest level of marine endemism, meaning that species are found here that are found nowhere else on Earth. For example, about 23 percent of our reef fish species are found only in the main Hawaiian Islands.

In the Northwest Hawaiian Islands within PMNM, endemism increases to 46 percent. Results from recent surveys in PMNM have documented areas with 100 percent endemism! All of these marine species are unique, and their survival is dependent on a delicate balance in the marine ecosystem.

The oldest animal on the planet is a golden coral that is more than 4,200 years old and lives in the area proposed for expansion. Recent deep sea dives within the expansion area have only just begun to discover an abundance of species that are new to science that are not found within the current PMNM. Once these unique species are destroyed in Papahanaumokuakea, they are lost to the world forever.

Large ocean predators, such as sharks, help maintain the stable functioning of reef ecosystems. In the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, sharks occur at some of the highest densities on the planet.

GPS satellite tracking data show that sharks now travel outside the current 50 nautical mile boundary. Commercial longliners routinely set 100-plus miles of fishing line, containing thousands of baited hooks. While their focus is predominantly pelagic fish species such as tuna, the baited hooks are indiscriminate in their capture of marine animals.

Bycatch is the term used to describe this unintentional capture of marine animals that are not the target of fishing. Bycatch by commercial fishermen in the region includes species like sharks, turtles, seabirds, seals, and other fish. Some of the catch rates are extremely high.

In the region of the expansion, one shark is caught and discarded for every two bigeye tuna, the true target of this fishery. Increasing the monument size would give these animals a larger area to forage and make their unintentional catch by longliners less likely.

Providing A Living Ocean Legacy

Expanding PMNM would provide little to no effect on the commercial fishing industry. In the latest Hawaii based logbooks, numbers show only 5 percent of their fishing effort is in the region proposed for expansion.

Over the long term, a protected area is in fact highly likely to yield benefits for the commercial fishing community. Expansion of PMNM would offer protection for larger female fish, which produce a larger number of eggs than smaller female fish. This would help to increase fish stock productivity and stability. Offering protected areas for these fish to flourish and reproduce will actually yield higher catches in the future from fish spilling over outside the protected area.

Supporters of the PMNM expansion are not asking commercial fishing to stop. They are just asking that it move 150 miles away from the current boundary after review of the best scientific evidence regarding the value of large marine protected areas.

I personally love eating fish, and I want to ensure that there are fish around decades from now when our children inherit the ocean resources that we are managing today. Expansion of PMNM will provide a living ocean legacy and will insure that there is an abundance of fish for future generations.

When it comes to the science supporting expansion of Papahanaumokuakea, it’s a no-brainer. Increasing the size of the PMNM is a good idea. Science and Native Hawaiian cultural beliefs are often interpreted as being at odds with each other, but in this case the Native Hawaiian and scientific communities stand together in preservation of biological and cultural resources.

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