Updated 2 p.m., 8/26/2016
President Barack Obama created the world’s largest protected marine area Friday by expanding Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, White House officials said Thursday.
The decision came after several months of public debate that has often pitted commercial fishermen against conservationists. Their efforts at times felt like election campaigns, complete with TV advertisements and heavy lobbying of Hawaii legislators, governors past and present, restauranteurs and members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Obama used the same executive authority under the Antiquities Act that President George W. Bush used in 2006 to unilaterally create the monument. The expansion will quadruple the area currently protected and make it almost as big as four Californias.
The president did not deviate from the proposal that U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii put forward in June, which called for adding the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a co-trustee and slightly shrinking the area that was initially proposed to accommodate fishermen.
“This was a tough road we traveled together but this is enormously important for the health of the oceans and for Hawaii,” Schatz told Civil Beat. “We’re happy we were able not just to do the right thing but to do it the right way through public engagement, public hearings and compromises.”
All commercial resource extraction activities, including commercial fishing and any future mineral extraction, are prohibited in the monument, White House officials said, adding that “noncommercial fishing, such as recreational fishing and the removal of fish and other resources for Native Hawaiian cultural practices, is allowed in the expansion area by permit, as is scientific research.”
Commercial fishermen fought the proposal from its inception, arguing that it would restrict access to an area where Hawaii longliners catch on average 8 percent of their annual limit for bigeye tuna.
But environmentalists and others maintained that the benefits of protecting these waters far outweigh the drawbacks, pointing at how the fishermen are free to make up their lost catch elsewhere in the Pacific.
“The expansion provides critical protections for more than 7,000 marine species, including whales and sea turtles listed under the Endangered Species Act and the longest-living marine species in the world — black coral, which have been found to live longer than 4,500 years,” according to a White House press statement.
“Additionally, as ocean acidification, warming, and other impacts of climate change threaten marine ecosystems, expanding the monument will improve ocean resilience, help the region’s distinct physical and biological resources adapt, and create a natural laboratory that will allow scientists to monitor and explore the impacts of climate change on these fragile ecosystems,” the statement said.
The push to expand the monument began in February with a letter to the president from seven prominent Native Hawaiians, including Nainoa Thompson, navigator and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and Hawaiian Home Lands Deputy Director William Aila, former chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The group appealed to Obama as an “island boy from Hawaii” who understands the ocean’s importance.
The proposal was fine-tuned after federal officials met with fishermen, local lawmakers and environmental advocates, resulting in Schatz’s proposal that set clear boundaries — including pushing the eastern edge of the expansion area farther west so that recreational and subsistence fishermen from Kauai in particular could access key fishing grounds.
“We had some tough conversations with the administration from the outset about doing this the right way,” Schatz said. “The Antiquities Act doesn’t require the administration to do anything in terms of communicating with the public, but we told them that was a precondition for our support and for success overall.”
Even with two public hearings, a visit from White House officials and discussions with government leaders, opponents of the expansion wanted a more thorough vetting of the proposal and more robust public input process.
Current and former members of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council criticized the proposal and the process. Wespac sets fishery management policies for a 1.5-million-square-mile area and advises the National Marine Fisheries Service on how to minimize bycatch, protect habitat and prevent overfishing.
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds was involved with the campaign against the monument, resulting in a complaint from an environmental group that said as a government official she should have stayed out of it.
“We do not believe the expansion is based on the best available scientific information,” Simonds said in a statement Thursday night. “It serves a political legacy rather than any conservation benefits to pelagic species such as tunas, billfish, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals.”
Sean Martin, former Wespac chair who runs a major commercial fishing store in Honolulu, could not be reached for comment.
The White House said Schatz played a major role in the president’s decision:
“In addition to significant input and local support from Hawaiian elected officials, cultural groups, conservation organizations, scientists, fishermen and the people of Hawaii, Senator Schatz’s leadership and advocacy played a crucial role in President Obama’s decision to expand Papahanaumokuakea.”
Obama plans to travel to Oahu on Wednesday to address leaders that evening from the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders and the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress.
Hawaii is hosting the IUCN, a 10-day event that’s expected to draw thousands of scientists, conservationists, nonprofits and government officials from around the world. It’s the first time the quadrennial meeting is being held in the United States.
Supporters had hoped Obama would announce the monument’s expansion Thursday to open the conference, but it became a challenge logistically to prevent that news from leaking when the president’s travel plans became public, so a decision was made to take action this week and speak to conference leaders the day before it starts.
Plans call for the president to fly Thursday to Midway Atoll, which falls within the marine monument’s boundaries, so he can mark the significance of the expansion and highlight how the threat of climate change makes protecting public lands and waters especially important, according to the White House.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker announced that their respective departments will soon sign an agreement with the Hawaii Department of Land Natural Resources and the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs that gives them a greater management role as a trustee in the monument. This move was requested by Schatz and Hawaii Gov. David Ige, who earlier Thursday announced his support of the expansion.
“While the expansion to the 200-mile (Exclusive Economic Zone) boundary will present some challenges in the short term, it carefully balances the very real human needs of today with the future health of the ecosystem that sustains life in these precious Hawaiian Islands,” Ige said.
OHA Chief Executive Officer Kamana’opono Crabbe applauded Obama’s decision to “elevate the voice of Native Hawaiians” in the management of lands and waters around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
“Papahanaumokuakea is critical to Native Hawaiian spiritual wellbeing, and this action by the president helps revive our connection to our kupuna islands and reinforce our understanding of Hawaii as a contiguous spiritual and cultural seascape,” he said in a statement.
“The elevation of OHA to a co-trustee position rightfully places the Native Hawaiian voice at all levels of decision making in the governance of Papahanaumokuakea,” Crabbe added. “This has been a 10-year effort to achieve this position and this success marks the beginning of a new era of collaboration for the co-managers of the area to fulfill the tremendous responsibility of protecting and caring for this sacred place.”
OHA Trustee Peter Apo, who opposed the expansion, has said the process was rushed and did not necessarily reflect the wishes of all Native Hawaiians. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, a major non-governmental organization that works to protect the environment, was heavily involved in advocating for the monument’s expansion, funding advertisements and helping to organize a coalition of supporters called Expand Papahanaumokuakea. Pew worked in a similar capacity to initially establish the monument 10 years ago.
“This is a legacy action for the president,” said Seth Horstmeyer, director of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy. “Not only did he just create the world’s largest protected area — land or sea — but he’ll be remembered in history as the single individual who’s protected more surface area of the planet than anyone else in history.”
In all, Obama has permanently protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters.
The expansion of Papahanaumokuakea comes just a day after he designated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. That monument will protect 87,500 acres.
When Papahanaumokuakea was created, it was the biggest marine reserve in the world. Horstmeyer said over the next decade, 12 other marine protected areas were established, and it lost the distinction of being the largest.
“We’re hoping the new larger Papahanaumokuakea will spark a new wave of ocean conservation,” he said. “The ocean really needs this right now.”
Simonds, of Wespac, said the U.S. government has chosen to follow Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy.
“The campaign to expand the monument was organized by a multibillion dollar, agenda-driven environmental organization that has preyed upon the public’s lack of understanding of ocean resource management issues and utilized influential native Hawaiians and several high-level politicians to lead this initiative,” she said.
Bob Richmond, research professor and director of the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory, said Obama’s “bold move” is a sign of proactive leadership during an era of mounting climate change impacts.
“The only refuges left on this Earth are those we choose to set aside and protect,” he said. “In the face of growing climate change effects on the world’s ocean resources, this scientifically and culturally sound decision will benefit generations to come, and help insure a legacy of precious biodiversity and fisheries resources for the future.”
Richmond was one of more than 1,500 scientists from around the world who signed a letter in July urging the president to expand the monument. The scientists said 30 percent of the world’s oceans need to be set aside for adequate protection against human exploitation; only 2 percent is currently protected.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii congratulated and thanked Obama for taking this “important step” in being a global leader in protecting ocean resources.
“President Obama’s efforts to enhance protections for our ocean ecosystem will help to combat climate change, preserve biodiversity, and honor cultural traditions,” she said in a statement. “As part of his announcement, I appreciate the President’s recognition of the importance of commercial fishing to Hawaii’s way of life and our shared goal of supporting Hawaii’s sustainable pelagic fisheries.”
The White House announcement said the expansion “builds on a rich tradition of marine protection in Hawaiian waters and world-class, well managed fisheries, including a longline fishing fleet that is a global leader in sustainable practices.”
Looking ahead, Schatz said the next major effort must be ensuring sufficient resources are available to manage the monument.
“It’s the biggest marine monument on the planet, and that’s going to require active resource management and that takes money,” he said. “The tip of the spear here has to be the federal government, and the (non-governmental organization) community that advocated for the monument now has to step up and take care of the ocean.”
Read the president’s proclamation below.