A group of Indigenous researchers, educators, deep-sea voyagers and community leaders is asking President Joe Biden to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument so that its protected ocean area encompasses all of the U.S.-controlled waters there.

That group, dubbed the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition, petitioned Biden in a letter Tuesday to extend the boundaries around several of that monument’s distant atolls and reefs to 200 nautical miles from 50 nautical miles.

Such a move would grow the protected area, which currently covers just under 500,000 square miles in the central Pacific, to some 755,000 total square miles in five different areas across the region. It would well surpass the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which was the world’s largest protected area when President Barack Obama expanded it in 2016.

A new coalition wants President Biden to expand environmental protections in federal waters around several remote Pacific islands, Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll, pictured here, located about 900 miles south of Hawaii. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If Biden uses his executive authority to expand the Pacific Remote Islands monument as requested, it would become the largest so-called “highly protected” marine protected area in the world, according to the coalition’s press release.

Such MPAs designated as highly protected prohibit mineral mining, oil and gas prospecting, dredging and dumping. They also limit the amount of fishing and aquaculture that could take place there.

“This movement is in its infancy I would say, but I think we have all the right players coming together to try to make this happen,” said Kekuewa Kikiloi, a coalition member and associate professor at the University of Hawaii’s Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies.

Other members include former Hawaii legislator Sol Kaho‘ohalahala, marine biologist Hoku Cody, Maui waterman and Hokule‘a voyaging canoe captain Archie Kalepa, traditional deep-sea navigator Kaleomanuiwa Wong, and William Aila, who directs the state’s Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. The coalition also includes two Guam-based members.

As impacts from climate change accelerate, “places like these remote islands, atolls and reefs represent some of the probably priority areas that we need to protect that have minimal impacts to other interests such as fishing,” Kikiloi added.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which often backs commercial fishing interests, has consistently and staunchly opposed efforts to create or expand such monuments in the past. This includes a concerted effort in 2014 to limit the Pacific Remote Islands monument’s previous expansion by Obama.

An animated map showing the changes in the Pacific Marine National Monuments borders over time.
An animated map showing the changes in the Pacific Marine National Monuments borders over time. April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2021

Obama’s administration expanded the monument boundaries that year around three islands — Wake, Johnston and Jarvis — to 200 nautical miles. However, it chose not to similarly extend the boundaries around Howland and Baker islands, nor Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef.

In 2014, Wespac and its longtime executive director, Kitty Simonds, helped prevent the full expansion after Simonds traveled to Washington to brief Obama counselor John Podesta on the matter.

Wespac also circulated materials publicly in opposition of the monument’s expansion, warning that the restrictions could impose burdensome fishing restrictions. However, the new coalition, citing Wespac’s own 2013 annual report, says that prior to 2014 the waters surrounding the PRI monument accounted for less than 5% of the Hawaii longline fleet’s catch.

Wespac did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Those boundaries around Howland, Baker, Palmyra and Kingman are what the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition aims to extend now. The group’s letter to Biden further asks for the monument to be renamed, although it doesn’t include replacement suggestions.

The Department of Hawaiian Homelands Chair William Aila.
Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Chair William Aila is part of a new coalition proposing to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Such an expansion would help better protect fish stocks as well as sharks, rays, whales, seabirds and other species, according to the coalition.

The distant islands within the monument also have cultural and historical significance to Hawaii. A group of some 130 Hawaiian men, dubbed the Hui Panala‘au, inhabited those areas from 1935 to 1942. Their presence helped the U.S. gain jurisdiction of the area, according to the coalition.

Further, the small islands historically served as key landmarks and rest points in traditional deep-sea voyaging via double-hulled canoes across the Pacific, the group added.

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case expressed his “strong support” for the expansion in a letter Tuesday. The move, he said, would support Biden’s goal to protect at least 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030 to help combat climate change.

Meanwhile, Suzanne Case, who heads the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, called the expansion a “good opportunity to do some important ocean protection.” She said Wednesday that Gov. David Ige’s administration still needs to review the new proposal, however, before declaring its support.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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