Hawaii congressman says “our world’s oceans are at mortal risk.”

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he would expeditiously expand and increase environmental protections for a group of remote atolls and islands in the Central Pacific and the nearly 777,000 square miles of waters around them.

He’s directing the commerce secretary to consider initiating a new national marine sanctuary designation within the next 30 days around the Pacific Remote Islands, which would further his goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. ocean waters by 2030.

A coalition of Pacific island leaders and members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation among others applauded Biden’s decision, though there were some lingering concerns.

Palmyra Atoll, about 900 miles south of Hawaii, is part of the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument. (Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“With his support, this action ensures a healthy marine ecosystem of native species, corals, seabirds, and all of the marine ‘ohana that support the perpetuation of traditional voyaging practices in Oceania,” Jonee Peters, executive director of Conservation Council for Hawaii, said in a release.

Johnston Atoll, Wake Island, Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll/Kingman Reef and the Baker and Howland Islands have been protected since President George W. Bush established the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in 2009, which banned deep-sea mining and commercial fishing in their waters out to 50 miles.

President Barack Obama expanded the monument more than fivefold in 2014 by pushing the boundary out to the federal limit of 200 miles around all the islands and atolls except Palmyra/Kingman and Baker and Howland. This brought the total protected area to 495,189 square miles. 

Seabirds dive and forage in the Pacific Remote Islands. (Courtesy: Kydd Pollock/TNC)

After playing defense during the Trump administration, which sought to roll back monument protections there and around the country, environmental groups last year renewed their push to include the areas Obama left out after resistance from commercial fishing interests in Hawaii among others.

“Our world’s oceans are at mortal risk, a breaking point precipitated by the unsustainable overfishing and other resource extraction, debris and land-based pollution, exacerbated and compounded by the devastating and pervasive marine effects of climate change,” Congressman Ed Case said in a release. “As a nation, we have a duty to ensure the long-term survival of the PRI’s ecological, scientific and cultural value.”

Biden stopped short of using his executive authority under the Antiquities Act as his predecessors did to expand the Pacific Remote Islands monument to include the unprotected areas. 

Graduates and students of Kamehameha School onboard the Itasca, 4th expedition, January 1936. Back row, left to right: Luther Waiwaiole, Henry Ohumukini, William Yomes, Solomon Kalama, James Carroll. Front row, left to right: Henry Mahikoa, Alexander Kahapea, George Kahanu, Sr., Joseph Kim. (Photo courtesy George Kahanu, Sr.).  Photo Credit: Center for Oral History, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.
Kamehameha School students and graduates, seen here in January 1936, were part of a group of mostly young Hawaiian men known as the Hui Panala‘au who secured U.S. territorial claim in the Pacific Remote Islands ahead of WWII. (Courtesy: Center for Oral History, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii Manoa and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum)

The sanctuary designation would give the Pacific Remote Islands “clear and comprehensive legal protections” for sanctuary resources and complement the high level of protection provided by the existing monument, according to a release from the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition. 

The diverse group, which formed in 2014 to protect the area, is asking Biden to rename the area through a culturally appropriate process and ensure co-management includes Indigenous Pacific Islanders as part of the process. The coalition also requested the president honor the service and sacrifice of the young Native Hawaiian men known as the Hui Panala’au who secured U.S. territorial claim to the islands in the run-up to World War II.

The White House said Biden intends to do just that.

At nearly 777,000 square miles, the proposed sanctuary would create the world’s largest highly protected marine protected area in national waters, according to the PRI Coalition.

That’s larger than Papahanaumokuakea Marina National Monument which protects 583,000 square miles around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It was the world’s largest marine protected area at the time when Obama expanded it in 2016.

Animation of the changing Pacific Marine Monument boundaries
A map shows the changes in the Pacific marine national monuments borders over time. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

The president also announced Tuesday that he is releasing the first-ever U.S. Ocean Climate Action Plan and is establishing Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada and Castner Range in Texas as national monuments that “define our identity as a nation.”

While many applauded Biden’s conservation actions, others criticized his “climate hypocrisy,” the Associated Press reported. Activists rallied outside the Interior Department where he spoke Tuesday, demanding he reverse his decision to approve the massive Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska.

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