The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: The Pacific Remote Islands Coalition - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at

Sol Kaho‘ohalahala, Nai‘a Lewis and William Aila explain why the area should be granted sanctuary status by the United States.

Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board spoke on Wednesday with William Aila, Sol Kahoohalahala and Nai‘a Lewis, members of the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition, which works to protect the cultural, natural and historical legacy of the islands, atolls and reefs of the PRI.

Aila is a former chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Kahoohalahala is a former state legislator now serving as chair of the Maui Nui Makai Network and chair of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Lewis is director of Big Ocean and runs her own Indigenous women-led multimedia collective Salted Logic.

President Joe Biden has proposed creating a new Pacific marine sanctuary that would be one of the largest protected areas on the planet — the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Sanctuary. The public scoping for that proposal began this week in Honolulu and Hilo. To comment online click here and type in the docket number NOAA-NOS-2023-0052.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity, for recent stories and with an eye on additional stories. The coalition began by describing the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Aila: It is a group of five islands or island groups. So you have Wake, Johnston and Jarvis that are protected out to 200 miles under the monument. And you have Howland, Baker, Kingman Reef and Palmyra, which are protected to 50 miles out. The ask is for them to become protected out to 200 miles and then to have a national marine sanctuary overlay over the monuments.

Are all the islands unpopulated?

Aila: There are people that are stationed at Palmyra right now for research purposes and management purposes.

The public scoping process to grant the PRI sanctuary status is underway. (NOAA)

Describe the coalition of which all three of you are members.

Kahoohalahala: So the coalition really came about from us understanding what we did to help support the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea (Marine National Monument). And then it took a lot of different communities and support and different cultural input into that process. And so we’re familiar with what was involved with that initiative. And then when it came time to now look at the Pacific Remote Islands, it became a natural that we should create an entity much like what we had with Papahanaumokuakea and support that, because it’s still a part of who we are — it’s in our ocean and it has all of the kinds of resources for support that’s needed.

Aila: The coalition is a group of cultural practitioners, fishermen, scientists, moms, dads. So it’s just a group of people that are really interested in protecting these large-scale, marine-protected areas, because we are all at risk and our future generations are at risk. And that’s why we all here worked so hard.

The NOAA process is to designate a new national marine sanctuary. We used to say NWHI for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and now we call it Papahanaumokuakea. What will happen with the acronym PRI?

Kahoohalahala: I think for now one of the things that we do want to do is consider finding an appropriate name for the place, much like we did for the Pacific Northwest Hawaiian Islands. It took us some time in a process that brought us together and then came about with what is now Papahanaumokuakea.

From left: Sol Kahoohalahala, Nai‘a Lewis and William Aila of the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition meeting with the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Wednesday. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The goal is to to have this new designation. Tell us about the process. The first phase began this week?

Lewis: It’s a component. Unlike creating a monument through the Antiquities Act, which is basically the president can create that with the stroke of his pen, this is a process where the community actually has to create the nomination and formally submit it to the Office of National Marine Sanctuary. It’s going to be a lengthy process. And that public engagement and public comment and those kinds of things, meetings are a part of the process. And we’re in it for the long haul — we know that. And then future elements, future phases of this will be impacted by the outcomes of these meetings and what people have to say.

Help us understand: what is a national marine sanctuary?

Kahoohalahala: For us, our familiarity with the sanctuary is the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. It helps to manage the areas designated in the waters that are within the Hawaiian Islands. And they’re not just one contiguous area in Hawaii. There’s areas off the Big Island of Hawaii. The largest area is between Maui Nui — Lanai, Molokai, and Kahoolawe and Maui. And it helps us to understand that at one time the humpback whales (were) deemed to be part of the endangered species list.

Blacktip sharks at Palmyra Atoll. (Courtesy: Kydd Pollack)

And so in the management plan of this, it helped us to decide what were some of the kinds of management that the sanctuary needed to apply in order to help encourage the protection. It’s everything from recreational use to commercial activity and (the) speed of vessels through it. Some of the real things that have come about now is a recovery from (net) entanglements — the humpback whale sanctuary has really become a leader in that regard.

And then the others are about the science, trying to do research that’s still continuously ongoing for the cetaceans that travel back and forth. We do monitoring on the population of the cetaceans, the whales. And for me, I think having been there for quite a while, one of the things I have tried now to bring in to the sanctuary itself is to consider the culture of the kohola (humpbacked whale), its relationship to the culture of people. And up until just a couple of years ago, we never really talked about the culture of the whale. We were concerned about whale watching as an activity. One of the things that we want to bring into the sanctuary is to make sure that the culture is given consideration.

Lewis: The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries leads in the management of a network of sanctuaries across the United States. Papahanaumokuakea is going for sanctuary designation. They’re not a sanctuary yet. Pacific Remote Islands is going for a sanctuary designation. They’re not one yet, but they would be the only two that are at this scale.

Red birds at the Pacific Remote Islands. (Courtesy: B. Flint USFWS)

Part of this nomination, even in our letters to Biden, is it’s definitely Indigenous-led. It’s very strongly indigenous led. But we’re cognizant that there are other Indigenous communities like the Chumash (Native Americans of the central and southern coastal regions of California) that have put in their sanctuary nomination. They’re at different phases of the process.

Part of what a sanctuary is, it’s important to note, is that overall there’s that desire to have kind of a bar of high protection and that it is community-led. Once it becomes a national marine sanctuary, obviously the management is federal. But the origins of it are with community. And so every one of those has its own management plans that are different. So part of the public process is that the management plans are created as communities across the U.S. participate in that. I think the unusual part about these two sites is that they’re so large, they’re at a different level of creating legislation to go out to the Exclusive Economic Zone (where nations have jurisdiction of 200 nautical miles).

Aila: All national marine sanctuaries have to contain cultural, natural, historic resources that are important to the United States. That’s the three major criteria to creating one. So in the case of (Papahanaumokuakea) and PRI in particular, it is uniqueness in terms of how the islands came into the possession of the United States. It’s unique in terms of it being remote like Papahanaumokuakea and providing an opportunity to study the impacts of climate change because there’s very little human impacts around it. Hopefully scientists will be able to determine whether or not man in Hawaii, man on the continent, is having an undue impact on climate change, and here’s our control.

All national marine sanctuaries have to contain cultural, natural, historic resources that are important to the United States.

William Aila

The other important thing I think with PRI is, there’s this unique ecosystem. And it’s big. So it provides protections for sharks, whales, seabirds, endangered Newell’s shearwaters. A member of our coalition sent us video the day before yesterday showing a marlin that was tagged off of Kona was tracked right through the PRI. So there’s definite connectivity. There is definite connectivity from Johnston (Atoll) to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or Papahanaumokuakea. And Johnston is connected to these islands. So we have this natural connection.

In addition, we have a cultural connection. It is undoubted that the various seafaring countries in this area sailed through these areas and used these areas at one time or another. Part of a national marine sanctuary will provide resources to do the research, to study the archeology, study anthropology and oral history so that we, as Indigenous folks, want to reach out to the Chamorros, the American Samoans — and actually, the Marshallese, who are not part of the United States but definitely share a connection to Wake Island.

It’s timely that the Polynesian Voyaging Society is doing their four-year trip around the Pacific. We see this as an opportunity to connect with our Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian cousins, and it’s important to make that connection now because a lot of their islands are going to be underwater in a while. So we need to find ways to preserve their cultures and one of the best ways is to make connections with others.

How do you differentiate between a marine national monument and a marine sanctuary?

Lewis: Part of it is they create the monument, and what’s in that particular (proclamation) statement dictates the levels of protection within the proclamation for any given monument. There are two different mechanisms, but that doesn’t mean that one is less protection than the other. It’s what’s stated in the actual proclamation and what’s stated in the actual management plan that dictate that level of protection. So in this (sanctuary) nomination (for PRI) we’re saying to match that level of protection that currently exists.

Naia Lewis is director of Big Ocean and runs her own Indigenous women-led multimedia collective, Salted Logic. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Aila: Sanctuaries do allow for the enforcement of rules, and in monuments it would be the enforcement of the criteria in the proclamations. There is technically a higher level of protection with the monument because of the enforcement of the rules.

Lewis: But a president also can’t just automatically roll back a sanctuary like you can a monument. Look what came up in the Trump years in terms of rolling monuments back. Sanctuaries definitely take longer — it’s a marathon — whereas getting support for a monument or creating that can be thought of as a sprint. But I would say it’s a level of protection that’s harder to roll back.

So if the PRI receives the sanctuary designation, does it then become the world’s largest highly protected marine area?

Aila: Yes — 770,000 square miles.

Larger than Alaska. And if it receives a sanctuary status, oil and gas development — off limits. Extractive activities. Even commercial fishing would be restricted. Is that right?

Lewis: Well, that’s right, that’s what we’re asking.

Aila: I think we’re at the beginning of a process. People will have the opportunity to say what their desire is. And then we’re very sensitive to the folks in Guam, CNMI, American Samoa, to what their their feelings are.

Speaking of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council. They have concerns that the designation would have unintended socioeconomic consequences and that it doesn’t give fair consideration to food security or fishing traditions, that Pacific Islanders eat more fish than other people. Can you respond to that?

Aila: Sure. So in 2008 when President Bush created the first monument in PRI, 50 miles around each of the five groups, they said the same thing — Wespac. Change the name of the governors, they said the same thing. (In) 2014, President Obama expanded the monuments around Johnston, Wake and Jarvis. Change the dates on the letters, they said the same thing.

So. Here we are today. They’re saying the same thing. Again, same arguments, same boogeyman. I think it’s an opportunity for the governors to leverage something out of the process.

Kahoohalahala: You know, in our initiative with Papahanaumokuakea, we had a lot of pushback from Wespac, and one of the main pushbacks was that we were taking away from the fishing industry access and we were going to deprive people from eating fish and we were going to take away jobs. And then in their own documentation during that process, what we find by their own records is less than what 5% of their fishing actually took place within the the sanctuary or the monument boundaries. And then the 95% actually took place outside. So their argument about we’re depriving them from the waters within the monument didn’t hold weight because their own documents show that they were doing 95% of their fishing outside.

For us it’s a strong case to say that large protected areas have benefits far beyond what we were told by the industry itself.

Sol Kahoʻohalahala

But moving forward, we have information now since the monument has been created at the 200 mile expansion, that they are meeting their quotas. They’re making their quotas outside of those because of the the spillover and the movement.

So again, for us it’s a strong case to say that large protected areas have benefits far beyond what we were told by the industry itself. And perhaps they should be looking at what this means overall for them and that this could be a positive win-win in terms of setting aside these larger areas of which they will be beneficiaries of.

A lot of the pushback and lobbying that Wespac has done has been around economic arguments. What about carbon capture, for example. And you mentioned whales as well, because they’re being identified as an important resource for carbon capture.

Kahoohalahala: Well, this biodiversity we’re talking about is the carbon capture. These organisms that come from the bottom of the ocean actually rise up. And then they’re going to be the ones that capture carbon and actually bring it down into the sea floor. So we are talking about a benefit to that process. So zooplankton, phytoplankton, all of them are going to be capturing this and bring it up. But there’s this relation to vertical relationships here that makes the seafloor part of the carbon sink. By setting aside these large areas, what we’re encouraging is for that kind of biodiversity to continue.

William Aila is a former chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

And then there are also the ones that are producing the oxygen that we breathe. We cannot isolate the fact that we’re thinking that oxygen only comes from terrestrial, it comes from the sea. So that breath of the air that comes from the land, the second breath comes from the sea, and it’s this vertical biodiversity and connection to the sea that gives us that second breath of oxygen. And so for me, that is a strong argument to be considered.

Lewis: It’s different than the economics of like saving a cannery, but I feel that’s the cost of climate change, which is the systemic risk. So in one sense, we’re talking about is there enough income? Is someone going to lose income? But then the other side of that is what is the cost of not doing or what is the cost of climate change, broadly speaking? And so I think that it’s weighing those. That economic question of short-term gain for something that might in the end actually disappear anyway. We don’t have to not be so myopic in our concept of income versus cost and what what the cost really is long term.

One of the biggest players in the Pacific is the military, who also are not good environmental stewards of the Pacific historically for all kinds of reasons. What sort of conversations or discussions do you think there need to be with with them?

Aila: You don’t have to go across the Pacific. You can go six miles off the Waianae Coast and you have a picric acid and mustard gas in containers half the size of this room that was dumped 6 miles off shore. So, yeah, they have a history. I can take you in 70 feet of water off the Waianae Boat Harbor all the way to Maile Point. There’s a trail of unexploded ordinance that sits there today. Hundred pound bombs.

What I think we need to do is exactly what’s happening in Hawaii with the current governor and Board of Water Supply and City Council is we have to just hold them accountable. We have to ask the hard questions. Red Hill was a great opportunity to sort of peel the onion back. And unfortunately, in Rota and in Saipan and in those areas, they just had a large military increase with the stationing of Marines from Okinawa. I think their governments need to empower their people, to hold the military accountable. And our own lawmakers in Congress need to hold the military accountable.

And not only that, now that they’ve taken up a lot of land in CNMI and Guam, there are areas where traditionally Chamorros and Carolinians traditionally access, and they can’t access that anymore. There needs to be a way for the military to allow that to occur, because otherwise they’re completing genocide. If you can’t go to a place that your ancestors went to worship or to see or to feel or to touch, you’re removing part of their cultural heritage and you’re doing a disservice to their future generations.

A school of fish at the Pacific Remote Islands. (Courtesy: Kydd Pollack)

But we need advocates. So in the case of CNMI, I think Earthjustice did a good job of kind of holding some of their expansion accountable. But they’re so far away. Hopefully with broadband (we can have) the opportunity to shine the light on these things. One of our hopes is to actually build coalitions.

Kahoʻohalahala: The sanctuary designation also will allow for some support, because in your management plan, you have an ability now to accommodate those kinds of concerns. And then you can invite the military to be a member of the sanctuary advisory so that they’re seated at the table with the rest of the complement of members. Much like our humpback whale sanctuary — we have all of the agencies there, including the military. And when there are issues raised about using radar and sonic within the waters, we can call them to attention and then make them be a participant in providing information. So that’s perhaps another positive that could happen, the sanctuary designation.

There is continuity in terms both Pacific Remote Islands and Papahanaumokuakea and these bids for sanctuary designation.

Nai‘a Lewis

Lewis: I was just going to say that I feel like that ties into Hui Panalāau and looking at military history. I feel like it’s a related but separate issue. I mean, all of these things should happen regardless of whether there was this sanctuary or monument there. Because there’s not a panacea. Hopefully they can be a mechanism to increase the communication. I think in any nation that has defense, it’s a challenge whether we were talking marine protection or anything else. And we’re also talking terrestrial issues of where military bases are.

Hui Panalāau — this was before and during World War II, and this involved Native Hawaiians. Please tell us a little bit about that story.

Kahoohalahala: So basically a group of Hawaiian men were recruited from Kamehameha to participate in the occupation of these islands — Howland, Baker and Jarvis. And it was from that period of 1934 and going forward to the war. I wanted to just note that my uncle was one of the Panalāau and his name was Joseph Keliihananui, and he was on Howland Island at the time that the Japanese raided and bombed those islands, knowing very well that they were being occupied by the U.S. but really Hawaiians. And along with Richard Whaley were the two gentlemen that were killed in that bombing raid on Howland Island. So I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that Hawaiians have an attachment and a connection in that history, that the United States utilized Hawaiians to occupy these islands because they were deemed to be conducive in fitting the environment of these far flung islands near the equator.

Hui Panalāau members in 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. Image courtesy of George Kahanu, Sr.; credit: Center for Oral History, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii Manoa and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. (Courtesy: George Kahanu Sr.)

And this was a mission that was considered to be secret. They couldn’t tell their families. My mother didn’t know where her brother went until many, many years after World War II when the Hui Panalāau asked the military to go back and bring home the two brothers that they had buried on Howland Island is when my mother realized that my uncle was there on Howland.

But I think because of the fact that they were selected for the cultural part that they bring, the maa (intimate familiarity) to the sea, the sea is their home. They fit there. They know how to survive. They know how to subsist. So it was not just a military occupation of an island, it was a cultural presence on an island and I want to acknowledge the Hui Panalāau for, and it was not necessarily a burden for them. It was an excitement of adventure of going to these places and in helping in a process that they didn’t realize was militarily purposed, I guess — until they were attacked. And then now they’re under U.S. jurisdiction, thanks to the Hawaiians that went to occupy these islands.

What a story.

Aila: When the two were brought back from these islands, they were actually buried in Schofield. But they were buried in a portion of Schofield’s cemetery that included prisoners of war, Germans and Japanese sympathizers. So that was some insult. And it wasn’t until 2014 when Hui Panalāau was more organized and the research was done that the location was identified. And then there was an effort to disinter and reinter at the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe. The only reason that I know about that is because Halealoha Ayau, Kunani Nihipali and myself are the ones that did the repatriation of those kupuna. At the time, whether it was secret or not, to me that was insulting. It took many years for that to be fixed.

The timeline for the decision to be made on the sanctuary. Would it be later this year?

Aila: 2024, I believe.

Lewis: There is no specific window. We have asked, as appropriate, we would like to be efficient with our use of time, collaborate and be really effective. But we still have to follow legal protocols, etc. But we would love for it to happen within this administration.

Any final point that you haven’t had a chance to make?

Kaho‘ohalahala: I think if I can kind of take it from the cultural perspective, we are talking about a relationship that is culturally a part of who we are. And, irregardless of if we’re talking about monuments, sanctuaries, or even the high seas, I want to make note that our political history speaks to an overthrow. And in that process, what happened is Hawaii was denied its representation as a nation state on the international stage. This is the stage in which all of these rules of which are applied now for us to consider were made. And had we been seated at the table, perhaps we would not be at the place that we are today.

Sol Kaho‘ohalahala is a former state legislator now chair of the Maui Nui Makai Network and chair of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

But nonetheless, I see ourselves having to make input at these levels concerning the deep seas, concerning protected areas at large scales or the sanctuary monuments, because the connection culturally to the resources of the deep seas are part of who we are. And we need to voice them now because it is a critical time of which this is being called for.

Climate change is changing all of these things and it’s going to affect everything that we know of or have known. And it is now beginning to evolve into new shifts of things. And I would like to make sure that as a cultural person and people that we are in tune to these and we must be a part of these decisions moving forward in terms of how we’re going to mitigate these issues.

Lewis: To build on genealogy, I feel that it’s also continuity in terms of looking at both Pacific Remote Islands and Papahanaumokuakea and these bids for sanctuary designation. Obviously they are two separate processes, but they are linked and related. Between the Steering Committee for the Pacific Remote Islands and the Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, you see the overlap. That’s because it’s it’s the genealogy of humans. We see these spaces as connected. And so I do think that there’s something really important in having an overlay that’s also part of a whole network of systems of sanctuaries. That they’re not one-offs, that we kind of bring everything into the fold and really make this cohesive, continuity between protections and communities.

Aila: You know, little more than 100 years ago, national parks were created. And there was the same sort of arguments that were going on about it’s going to economically kill this particular area or do whatever. None of that has been true. In fact, national parks have become very, very important to the nation’s identity. So here we are 100 years later, and we’re creating national monuments and national marine sanctuaries. I think 100 years from now, our descendants are going to look back on these efforts, on the timing of these efforts, and at least to tip their hats to the folks that are in this room and everyone else that is part of this process and say, “Wow, you guys did something good.”

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at

Latest Comments (0)

I hope the Coalition will include Marshallese as Wake Island (atoll), Enen Kio in Marshallese (various spellings exist), is plausibly part of the ancient Marshall Islands.

DanlCSmith · 4 months ago

Really glad William was there, with some important insights about enforcement (among other things) over and above the "why". Hopefully you'd include people who were directly involved in enforcement in the other areas (eg. law enforcement officers who led casework in Papahānaumokuākea both before and after designation) in some future inquiry or roundtable. I reckon you'll get some important perspectives there relevant to the "what" and "how", and hopefully help avert some pitfalls - or at least shine light on them - should the rules and policies merely be cut & pasted from NOAA's other efforts.

Kamanulai · 4 months ago

One of the biggest players in the Pacific is the military"Johnston Island has been used as a naval refueling depot, an airbase, a testing site for nuclear and biological weapons, a secret missile base, and a site for the storage and disposal of chemical weapons and Agent Orange. Those activities left the area environmentally contaminated" Wiki"The militarization of Guam is nothing if not proof that the military buildup now under way is happening over the objections of thousands of the island’s residents. Many of these protesters, including myself, are Indigenous Chamorros whose ancestors endured five centuries of colonization and who see this most recent wave of unilateral action by the United States" Chamorro author Julian AguonSince the US Military has such a heavy and growing footprint in the Pacific, the military should be the main focus of PRI Coalition in protecting Papahanaumokuakea

Joseppi · 4 months ago

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