In the midst of an election year that feels like the punch line to a very bad joke, I was overjoyed to wake up, open my iPad, and read the news about the amazing work the Obama administration, the National Park Service, and conservationists have done naming a 583,000 square miles “no take” zone off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands. By naming this new ocean reserve, the Obama administration has quadrupled the previous national marine reserve of the waters off the coast of Northwestern Hawaii.  In 2006, just 139,800 square miles of ocean in this region was protected, but now in 2016, 582,600 square miles of ocean waters are protected. To put that in perspective, Hawaii is now home to an ocean reserve roughly twice the size of Texas.


This news was announced at the tail end of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. President Obama himself made the announcement, creating the largest protected area of land or sea on earth. The area serves exceptionally important to a wide variety of marine life but also is of great importance to native Hawaiian culture. The area is located in a remote arc of the Pacific Ocean waters and is roughly a half a million square miles.


National Parks in the Past

In 1872, Yellowstone National Park was named and became the world’s first national park. It is approximately 3,500 square miles of land located primarily Wyoming, but the park spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho too. In the last 150 years, we have protected about 15% of the Earth’s land, but only a mere 2% of the earth’s ocean.


Extending the current marine reserve

The area is known as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and was originally established in 2006 by President George W. Bush. As of last Friday, Obama extended the reserve (did I mention by 4 times the size yet?!) in his home state of Hawaii. By enlarging the area, Obama has made the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument larger in area than all of the other national parks combined.


By extending the boundary of the ocean reserve, Obama did not only create a larger protected monument by extending the monument by 442,000 square miles but also using his executive authority under the U.S. Antiquities Act, prohibited commercial fishing within the park limits. The limits also include a 200 mile zone around the monument called an exclusive economic zone (EZZ) which allows the state of Hawaii special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind.

The governor of Hawaii, David Ige, has been working through a “tremendous” debate within Hawaii over the reserved as well as the fishing prohibition. The fishing industry fought quite intently against this expansion and “no take zone” rule. While it has not been an easy expansion for him he has said that the expansion, “strikes the right balance at this time for the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, and it can be a model for sustainability in the other oceans of planet Earth.” The compromise came with maintaining the monument’s current boundary on the Eastern end of the reserve, thus allowing fishermen in both Kauai and Niihau to continue working as they have in the past within the grounds of the EEZ.

While this compromise exists, there are some fishermen who used to fish for tuna within the newly expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and will now no longer be able to. This as any one can imagine is causing a major riff between the fisheries and government. Edwin Ebisui Jr. is a chairman on the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management council and is not happy about this expansion. He says, “To the native Hawaiian, access to marine resources is very, very important and always will be. I don’t see how quadrupling the size of the prohibited fishing are in any way furthers their cultural interests. With so much of our EEZ off-limits, it feels as if Hawaiians are taking one for the team again”.



Why Protect the Ocean?

The ocean makes up the vast majority of this planet and is also home to over half the life on this planet yet, we have only explored half of it. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is a sanctuary for all sorts of endangered wildlife including some of the rarest and most extraordinary animals on the planet like blue whales, albatrosses, various sea turtle species, and what is left of the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal. In terms of coral reefs, it has some of the healthiest and northernmost reef systems in the ocean which stand the best chance of survival as ocean temperatures rise and the effects of climate change and pollution take hold in the world’s oceans. The reserve is home to some of the oldest organisms on earth, including black corals which are estimated to be living for more than 4,000 years. The seamounts and sunken islands in the region are home to more than 7,000 different species and are some of the deepest areas in that region. In fact this region is so specialized that about one quarter or 25% of the organisms that live within the safe haven of the monument are not known to be found natively anywhere else in the world. This of course is only based on the species we have discovered, but thousands of new species are discovered each year ranging from algae to octopus to whale.


Protecting the ocean and creating these marine reserves and monuments is so important. In fact scientists estimate that in order to maintain healthy oceans about 30% of the oceans waters should be protected like the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii.


 Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and a National Geographic Explorer-in residence believes that this announcement gives hope that the United States can be a leader in a global network of protected marine areas that remain large enough to make a substantial impact on ocean health and help restore past damage. Earle refers the marine reserves or monuments and “blue parks” and she says they “are not a luxury – a place to go and have a good time”. She goes on to say, “Resilience to climate change is dependent on having significant areas of natural protection- for biodiversity and for all the things that hold the planet steady. This is vitally important to protect our life-support system.”


On the 100th anniversary of the National Park service, conservationists are coming together to call for more marine protected areas. The film Blue Centennial documents this journey and their efforts. It will air on the National Geographic channel in January of 2017.


References and photos courtesy of