More than 1,500 scientists from around the world have signed a letter urging President Obama to use his executive authority to expand Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

“There is a growing consensus among marine scientists that 30% of the oceans be set aside for adequate protection against human exploitation, yet only two percent presently benefits from full protection,” the letter said.

The group said expanding the monument from the current 50-mile boundary to the full 200-mile allowable limit as proposed would be a “substantial step in the right direction, creating the largest reserve in the world.”

Director Kewalo Marine Lab Robert Richmond PhD2. 20 june 2016
Robert Richmond of Kewalo Marine Laboratory spoke during the recent International Coral Reef Symposium. He was one of the first to sign a letter to President Obama urging him to expand Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The 1,500 scientists were in Honolulu last month with hundreds of other marine experts and government officials for the International Coral Reef Symposium, a weeklong event held every four years. It was the first time Hawaii has hosted it.

The symposium featured panels that discussed, among many other things, the value of large marine protected areas in terms of biodiversity, combating climate change and preserving culturally sensitive places.

“For me, the overwhelming kind of message across the entirety of the symposium was that we are going to be facing global changes that we have never experienced before,” Sol Kahoohalahala, a former lawmaker and current member of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, said in an interview.

“We need to be more mindful of these changes,” he said, “and how we are going to meet those changes, mitigate them if we can and start to put into place other plans or ideas to help reverse this to at least be resilient to it.”

The scientists, who included Robert Richmond of Kewalo Marine Laboratory and Ruth Gates of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said in their letter that oceans and those who depend on them are threatened by unprecedented levels of degradation tied to exploitation by humans.

“Pollution, overfishing and the combined effects of ocean warming and acidification tied to climate change are negatively affecting our oceans and the living resources within,” the scientists said. “Due to the ever-increasing human footprint, the only refuges left in the world are those we choose to establish and enforce.”

This map shows the proposed expansion area around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
This map shows the proposed expansion area around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Courtesy: Sen. Brian Schatz

The proposed expansion of Papahanaumokuakea started with a letter to Obama in February from seven prominent Native Hawaiians, including William Aila, former chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources; Nainoa Thompson, navigator and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society; and Isaac “Paka” Harp, former commercial fisherman who was instrumental in the creation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in 2000.

“We need to know what’s out there before we go messing it up,” Harp said in an interview. He also supports creating a bigger quiet zone in the ocean, free of military noise made during training exercises.

Scientists are continuing to discover new species in the existing monument area. A new limu called Ulva iliohaha was found at a depth of 200 to 400 feet.

Not everyone agrees the expansion is a good idea, particularly longline fishermen who catch on average roughly 8 percent of their bigeye tuna in that area each year. They have sent their own letters to the president, as have state lawmakers who are concerned about the impact the expansion would have on the ahi industry.

“We’re in support of being able to fish as we have traditionally for several decades,” said Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association.

Sean Martin President Hawaii Longline Fishing Association1. 24 june 2016
Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, says the commercial fishing industry wants to preserve access to the areas it has fished for years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We need to be able to fish where the fish are,” he said, adding that it’s hard to know where highly migratory species like tuna are going to be.

John Kaneko, program manager of the Hawaii Seafood Council, said he has yet to see any evidence that banning the longliners from the area as part of the protections would have any significant impact on the resources there.

Peter Apo, an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and Civil Beat columnist, said it’s a global issue and Obama should not expand the monument.

“It has to do with the president. It has to do with us. It has to do with military objectives. It has to do with a lot of things,” Apo said. “The fishing thing tends to capture the argument. We need to be able to break open the discussion.”

Harp said he hopes that as Obama and federal officials consider expanding the monument, they decide to have a public input process even though one isn’t required by law.

“I would hate for anyone in Hawaii to feel this is something being shoved down their throats,” he said.

The decision to expand the monument is ultimately up to Obama. Supporters are hoping he will make an announcement in September when Honolulu hosts the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a huge environmental event that takes place every four years. It’s the first time it’s being held in the United States.

Read the scientists’ letter to the president below, along with a list of everyone who signed it.

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