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Gov. David Ige welcomed a major environmental conference to Hawaii on Thursday by committing to protect more of his state’s watersheds and nearshore ocean waters.
Ige spoke to several thousand people at the opening of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, which will continue through Sept. 10 at the Hawaii Convention Center.
He announced the state’s commitment to protect 30 percent of its highest priority watersheds by 2030 and to “effectively manage” 30 percent of its nearshore ocean waters in the same time frame.
“We are a microcosm of our planet Earth,” Ige said during opening ceremonies at the Blaisdell Center. “We cannot afford to mess this up.”
His office released a statement saying that his commitment would include “balancing sustainable use, restoration, and conservation measures such as community-based management, time and area closures for fisheries replenishment, reasonable laws to encourage sustainable fishing practices, and effective enforcement, combined with systematized monitoring to assess effectiveness.”
Jack Kittinger, director of Conservation International’s Hawaii program, applauded the governor’s new commitments.
“As an island state, Hawaii is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including increased storms, coral bleaching as well as local impacts that place our reefs at risk,” he said.
Later in the opening ceremony, Palau President Tommy Remengesau called on conference-goers to support his motion to protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans. The World Conservation Congress’ roughly 1,300 members — including government officials, nonprofit leaders, scientists and others — will vote on that motion and others next week.
“Time is not on our side,” Remengesau said. “We must rise together with the speed and determination necessary to meet the most daunting challenges humanity has ever faced.”
Only 2 percent of the oceans are protected today, he said, adding that scientists say increasing this to 30 percent is key to preserving fish stocks and biodiversity, increasing resiliency to climate change and undoing adverse effects.
Remengesau said he wants to leave the conference armed with a mandate for action that can be presented when the United Nations General Assembly meets later this month.
Several speakers referred to President Barack Obama’s recent proclamation that quadrupled the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The expansion was initially floated as an idea from seven prominent Native Hawaiian leaders, including Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who took part in a ceremony early Thursday on Waikiki Beach fronting the Hilton Hawaiian Village that preceded the speeches from dignitaries and dramatic hula performances at Blaisdell.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii turned the Hawaiians’ February letter to the president into a formal proposal that involved expanding protections to cover nearly 600,000 square miles. The proclamation that Obama signed also elevated the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs to the role of co-trustee of the monument, giving the group a seat at the decision-making table on how to manage the area.
Addressing IUCN attendees Thursday, Schatz sounded a tone of cautious optimism. The planet is in peril, he said, but he’s encouraged by the many people working together on solutions.
“The people who care about birds and butterflies and the people who care about money are finally in agreement,” he said, noting how it can be cheaper to take care of the environment now instead of paying to fix it later.
Some had expected the president to announce the expansion Thursday morning to open the IUCN conference. Instead, he spent the day touring Midway Atoll, which is inside the monument’s boundaries.
Obama addressed a limited press pool on Midway, describing the monument’s “spectacular” ecosystem that is home to 7,000 marine species, millions of birds, Hawaiian monk seals and animals found nowhere else.
“It’s also critically important for us to examine the effects climate change are taking here in the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest body of water,” he said, according to the press pool’s report.
Obama addressed Pacific Island leaders and dignitaries Wednesday evening during a small gathering at the East-West Center on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus. He underscored the importance of climate change and cooperation among world leaders.
The president pointed at how countries are at risk of having to relocate whole populations as a consequence of climate change.
“There are enormous effects on the human presence in the ocean that some creatures are having to adapt to, and some cannot adapt to,” Obama said in his statement at Midway.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell applauded the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea, adding that protected areas fuel economies, including Hawaii’s robust tourism industry.
But she said “political and manmade boundaries are not enough.” She noted, for example, how invasive species travel and devastate areas.
“The United States is part of the problem,” Jewell said. “We must be part of the solution, along with partners around the world.”
She said more actions like the one Ige took in setting the 30 percent goals are needed to implement international agreements to combat climate change.
There was heightened security outside Blaisdell on Thursday that confused many of the attendees, who had to navigate a series of road closures and pedestrian barricades before gaining entrance. Some stragglers could be seen rushing down the sidewalks to make sure they could get inside before the doors closed at 10 a.m. for security purposes.
Some attendees held out hope Obama would make a surprise visit during the IUCN opening, especially after enduring the heightened security. He didn’t.
“It’s still meaningful that he made it out here even though it’s messing up our lives with all the traffic,” said Victoria Keever, a climate researcher with the East-West Center, who was one of the many attendees racing toward the entrance before it closed. “We had a very hard time figuring out how to get down here and where to go.”
Unlike the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which had hundreds of protesters marching through Waikiki, the World Conservation Congress opening was relatively benign.
There were no protesters on the streets or sidewalks surrounding Blaisdell. In fact, the area was mostly empty aside from a large contingent of Honolulu police officers and other security personnel from state and federal agencies that had been assigned under the assumption the president was going to show up.
“Safety is first,” said Kathy Yee, a K-9 handler whose job was to search vehicles for explosives. “You can never keep people too safe.”
The first day of the conference wrapped up with a reception at the Hawaii Convention Center, where the remainder of the event will be held.
Nick Grube contributed to this report.