Palau President Tommy Remengesau added his voice Monday to those calling on President Barack Obama to expand the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument fourfold so that it protects nearly 600,000 square miles.

He delivered the keynote address to open the International Coral Reef Symposium at the Hawaii Convention Center. More than 2,500 scientists, government officials, cultural practitioners and others from nearly 100 countries are in Honolulu for the weeklong event, which is focused on bridging science to policy.

“2016 really must be the year of implementation,” Remengesau said, underscoring the need for decisive, collective action. Just last year, he signed a measure to protect all of Palau’s waters.

Coral Symposium Palau President Tommy Remengesau. 20 june 2016
Palau President Tommy Remengesau delivers opening remarks Monday at the International Coral Reef Symposium at the Hawaii Convention Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Protecting our ocean from overfishing and climate change requires bold leadership,” he said. “I am honored to join the scientific community and Native Hawaiian leaders, including Nainoa Thompson, in supporting the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea.”

Soon after Remengesau’s speech ended, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that their latest outlook shows many coral reefs across the world will likely be exposed to higher-than-normal sea temperatures for an unprecedented third straight year.

Mark Eakin, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch coordinator, said at the conference that this is the largest, most widespread coral bleaching event ever and that it’s hitting places like Hawaii and Florida particularly hard.

“It’s very important for the managers to be ready,” he said, referring to government officials and others who manage coastal resources.

The latest coral bleaching event began in mid-2014 and hasn’t let up due to global warming and an intense El Niño. More than 70 percent of U.S. coral reefs were exposed to prolonged high temperatures and some 93 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was bleached by April.

NOAA's Mark Eakin, left, and Jennifer Koss, along with Billy Causey (not pictured), discussed the largest, most widespread coral bleaching event during the International Coral Reef Symposium, Monday at the Hawaii Convention Center.
NOAA’s Mark Eakin and Jennifer Koss discuss the threat of unprecedented coral bleaching Monday at the International Coral Reef Symposium. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Now NOAA Coral Reef Watch is projecting a 90 percent chance of widespread coral bleaching in the Pacific island nations of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia during the probable La Niña.

Coral reefs don’t necessarily die from a bleaching event, although many do. They can recover from the bleaching if they were healthy beforehand and human impacts are kept at bay, NOAA officials said in a release.

Jennifer Koss, NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program director, explained that corals provide the basis for island economies and a buffer against hurricanes and tsunamis, and are inextricably linked to the cultures of the people who live there.

“Corals are the foundation for habitable life,” she said, noting how they are a bellwether for the changes occurring in the oceans.

“They’re ringing those bells like crazy right now,” she said. “We can’t afford to not listen to them.”

There’s a need to mitigate local stressors, such as overfishing and onshore pollutants that run into the water when it rains, several scientists said at the symposium. But that really just buys time.

A gray reef shark swims among a colorful school of yellow and blueback fusiliers in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
A gray reef shark swims among a colorful school of yellow and blueback fusiliers in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Courtesy: NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program

The scientific community is working harder to educate the public about the crisis facing corals and why it matters to people who live in middle America, for instance. The scientists hope an informed public will in turn pressure policymakers to take meaningful action.

Humans are one of thousands of species that rely on coral reefs for survival. Some 500 million people worldwide depend upon reefs for food and their livelihoods, according to NOAA, and the reefs contribute billions of dollars to world economies annually.

Koss said the fact that Remengesau was one of three heads of state at the symposium, not to mention Hawaii and U.S. officials, underscored how critical the issue is. Peter Christian, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, and Hilda Heine, president of the Marshall Islands, are also attending.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said it’s important for policymakers to understand why they need to act, and applauded the people attending the symposium for their steps toward this end.

UH Hilo studetns chant to welcome the 13th international Symposium on Coral Reefs at the Hawaii Convention Center. 20 june 2016
University of Hawai Hilo students chant to open the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium on Monday at the Hawaii Convention Center. More than 2,500 people from nearly 100 countries are attending the weeklong conference. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There seems to be a disconnect in Washington between what scientists know and what Congress is willing to do,” Hirono said in remarks delivered via video since she was unable to attend the conference due to Congress being in session.

In October, Remengesau signed a measure into law that created the Palau National Marine Sanctuary. It’s the world’s sixth-largest fully protected marine area, covering all of of Palau’s ocean waters. The roughly 600,000-square-kilometer area includes an 80 percent no-take reserve and a 20 percent protected domestic fishing zone.

“We are listening to what science is telling us,” he said. “Large marine protected areas are critical to allow marine biodiversity to recover and fish stocks to rebound, and also have great spillover benefits for the whole region.”

NOAA Assistant Administrator Eilene Sobeck
NOAA Assistant Administrator Eileen Sobeck Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He told a packed ballroom that the Palau sanctuary’s size equates to 36 square kilometers per Palauan. Even if Papahanaumokuakea is expanded as proposed out to the 200-mile limit from its current 50-mile boundary around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, he said that would be just .005 square kilometers per American.

“We need to send a strong signal to the world that we need to protect our ocean, our lifeblood to future generations,” Remengesau said. “We must develop and implement forward-looking, science-based policies.”

Eileen Sobeck, NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator and co-chair of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, said federal officials are using every tool in their scientific and management toolbox to protect coral reefs, including the Endangered Species Act.

“We’ve heard the message, that you the scientists have brought to us, that local actions are in a sense short-term Band-Aids,” she said in her remarks to open the conference.

“Coral reefs are the canaries in the ocean coal mine ecosystem,” she said. “On the senior leadership side, we have to think globally as well as locally.”

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