Marine protected areas (MPAs) are vital to maintaining the biodiversity that makes up the worlds’ oceans – especially in the face of dynamic climate change. Recently, President Obama joined the mission to save our oceans’ wildlife by creating not only the largest marine protected area, but the largest protected area on land to ever exist. Located in the remote waters of the Pacific Ocean in Obama’s home state, Hawaii, the area occupies a half-million-square-mile arc renowned for its diverse marine life and significance to the Hawaiian culture.

One of the islands encapsulated by the new boundary of Papahānaumokuākea

One of the islands encapsulated by the new boundary of Papahānaumokuākea

The newly created marine protected area is an extension of an already existing protected area, known as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, established by President George W. Bush in 2006. Before its expansion, the area occupied 140,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the northwestern islands of Hawaii. The creation of this new marine protected area came at the end of a week of celebrating the National Park Service for their 100th anniversary.

The Largest Marine Protected Area

Sure, this newly created area is big – but it’s hard to get a grasp on just how big. Obama expanded Papahānaumokuākea to 582, 578 square miles, more than quadrupling its original size. To provide a comparison to understand the magnitude of the expansion, the new boundary for Papahānaumokuākea is larger than all the national parks combined.

Diagram showing the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea out to the EEZ (Source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/obama-creates-world-s-largest-park-off-hawaii/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=link_fb20160826news-hawaii&utm_campaign=Content/&sf34386404=1)

Diagram showing the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea out to the EEZ

Obama used his power under the U.S. Antiquities Act to expand the original monument’s boundary out to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 200 miles form shore. Theodore Roosevelt signed the U.S. Antiquities Act into law in 1906 to give the president of the United States the authority to create national monuments from public land in order to preserve natural, cultural, or scientific features. Exclusive economic zones are areas in which the state has control over the exploration and use of various marine resources in that area.

The Wildlife of Papahānaumokuākea

Juvenile albatross in the waters of the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument

Juvenile albatross in the waters of the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument

Papahānaumokuākea is a rich expanse of marine wildlife and native Hawaiian creatures. It is home to numerous endangered species, including blue whales, short-tailed albatrosses, sea turtles, and what’s left of the Hawaiian monk seals. Apart from the wildlife are Papahānaumokuākea’s healthy and thriving coral reefs, considered some of the healthiest coral reefs worldwide and most likely to survive the warming ocean temperatures occurring as a result of climate change. At its deepest depths, the seamounts and sunken islands of Papahānaumokuākea also contain some of the oldest animals on earth – black corals that have been around for over 4,000 years. To give you an idea of the diversity of this national monument, one quarter of the creatures that call Papahānaumokuākea home are found nowhere else in the world.

Opposition from Fisheries

This recent delineation of the new Papahānaumokuākea has fostered hope that the United States can be the leaders in creating a global network of MPAs expansive enough to restore and maintain the health of our oceans. Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist with National Geographic, wants the public to know that these marine areas “are not a luxury – a place to go and have a good time.” Rather, MPAs are created in order to protect our oceans’ wildlife. “Resilience to climate chance is dependent upon 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,” Earle explains.

With the applaud for the expanded protected area from conservationists and scientists alike comes the equal dismay from the fishery industries, who fought tirelessly against the Papahānaumokuākea expansion through TV ads, YouTube videos, and town hall meetings. If it were up to marine scientists, acts like fishing, mining, and resource exploitation would be prohibited in 30 percent of the worlds’ ocean to protect sea life. Currently (including the expanded Papahānaumokuākea area), the U.S. has around 1,200 MPAs, covering 26 percent of marine waters (Lauren Wenzel, director of NOAA’s National Marine Protected Areas Center).

“No-take” Zones

The thing that sets these numerous other MPAs apart from Papahānaumokuākea is that fishing and other forms of resource extraction is allowed at other locations, whereas Papahānaumokuākea is an exclusive “no-take” zone. Before the expansion, just about 3 percent of all U.S. marine waters were “no-take” areas. The new delineation of Papahānaumokuākea increases that number to 13 percent – and, 98 percent of the protected ocean deemed “no-take” occurs in Papahānaumokuākea.

Determining a Compromise

The eastern end of Papahānaumokuākea kept its original boundary, allowing fishermen to continue to fish

The eastern end of Papahānaumokuākea kept its original boundary, allowing fishermen to continue to fish

Despite the dismay of the fisheries, a deal was settled. U.S. Senator Brian Schatz met Hawaii lawmakers halfway, allowing the far eastern end of Papahānaumokuākea to keep its original boundary, permitting the fisherman to return to business as usual inside their EEZ boundaries.

Even with the compromise settled, vehement opposition still arose from fishing industries. Edwin Ebisui Jr., chairman of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, spearheaded a letter, along with seven other leaders in charge of regional fisheries along the U.S. coastline, to President Obama urging him to allow fishing to continue in any protected areas enacted under the Antiquities Act. The fishermen’s request was met with denial, as fishing inside Papahānaumokuākea will continue to be prohibited.

According to historian Douglas Brinkley, “Presidents in their last year of office need to do what’s visionary. It’s not about ‘what I can get in the last year.’ It’s about the long-term, which is the essence of conservation.”

Sources:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/obama-creates-world-s-largest-park-off-hawaii/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=link_fb20160826news-hawaii&utm_campaign=Content/&sf34386404=1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exclusive_economic_zone

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antiquities_Act

Photo Sources:

All photos are from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/obama-creates-world-s-largest-park-off-hawaii/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=link_fb20160826news-hawaii&utm_campaign=Content/&sf34386404=1