A few days ago President Barak Obama did something pretty extraordinary when he signed Presidential Proclamation 8112 expanding the area encompassed within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to 582,578 square miles (that’s twice the size of Texas), making it the largest conservation area on earth. Everyone loves a good superlative and having worked for in the field of conservation for a few years I’ve heard my share, some more contrived than others. But this is one is so hard to comprehend it bears repeating: THE LARGEST CONSERVATION AREA ON EARTH.
Before my conservative friends click “close” let me relate a couple of important facts about the pre-Obama history of this thing. Back in the days when wearing bird feathers on one’s hat was a sign of status and the harvest of wild eggs for food was commonplace, ships plied remote corners of the Pacific Ocean looking for seabird colonies to exploit. Reports of large numbers of seabirds being slaughtered in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to establish the first protections for wildlife there in 1909. Incremental steps were made in subsequent years but it wasn’t until 2006 that significant progress was made when President George W Bush signed Presidential Proclamation 8031 establishing the Monument although at the time it had a somewhat more bureaucratic name at the time.
In these times when those who might be labelled “red” or “blue” rarely have much in common, what is it about this place, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, that creates such consensus regarding its importance for conservation? I think it boils down to three things. First, this is a remote area of the globe that, aside from a fairly limited commercial fishery, has little economic importance. In a world where habitat for seabirds, marine mammals, turtles, and coral reefs has experienced sharp declines, these uninhabited islands provide critical habitat and are the last strongholds for two species of albatross (Laysan and Black-footed), Hawaiian monk seals, and green sea-turtle). Moreover, recent scientific explorations have revealed that the area harbors an extraordinary diversity of marine species – over 7,000 of which about one-quarter are found nowhere else on earth – which include the longest living coral species in the world, black coral, which inhabits the deep waters of this region and provides habitat for various fishes. But of course, the significance of this area has long been known to the native people of Hawaii who have long considered these islands and the seas that surround them the source of all life and which is reflected in the name given to the monument: Papahānaumokuākea.
Finally, if you have had your head in the sand (or some other dark place) you may have missed the fact that our earth is changing and that low-lying islands and the seas that surround them are especially vulnerable to some of these changes which include not only warming but, perhaps more importantly, acidification and other impacts. In expanding the area protected by the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, President Obama has taken an important step towards ensuring that this area will be able to adapt to these changes and, hopefully, retain the biological riches that have evolved here over the past 100 million or so years. Of course this will not be enough as the ocean is fluid and the new boundary, however large, is rigid. When the President visits Midway this week, I am hoping that it will inspire him to undertake even greater steps towards protecting our oceans. We’ll see I guess!
If you have any doubt as to the extraordinary significance of this area, take a look at this video which provides some fantastic footage from a scientific exploration made in 2016 by the NOAA research vessel Deep Discover within what is now part of the marine national monument. Enjoy!