The Expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

The Expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

Module1-1Barack Obama has created the world’s largest marine protected area by expanding an existing ocean reserve off Hawaii to cover 582,578 square miles, providing what’s likely to be the grandest, and final, chapter in the president’s conservation legacy. The sweeping move quadruples the size of the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument, which was originally designated by George W Bush in 2006 and was declared a World Heritage site in 2010. (Click on the photo to your right to enlarge map).

The monument, which is now double the size of Texas, stretches outward from the north-western Hawaiian islands and includes Midway Atoll, famed for its former military base and eponymous battle that was crucial in the US defeat of Japan in the second world war. The protected area is now larger than the previous largest marine reserve, situated around the Pitcairn Islands and announced by the UK last Year. Conservationists had pushed for an expansion to the monument following recent research that discovered new species and importation ecological connectivity in the area, as well as raised concerns for the ecosystem due to the impact of ocean acidification and coral decline driven by warming temperatures.

The White House said the decision will provide “critical protections” for more than 7,000 marine species, a quarter of them found nowhere else on Earth. The area is inhabited by whales, sea turtles and yellowfin tuna and the bigeye tuna, which are commonly referred to in Hawaii as ‘ahi. Swaths of black coral, the world’s longest-living marine species at more than 4,500 years, will also be protected. The enlarged Papahānaumokuākea monument contains a number of treasures, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, around 14m seabirds and the Laysan duck, which is the world’s most endangered duck. The region includes six huge underwater volcanoes, one nearly 14,000ft high, and the USS Yorktown, which sank during the Battle of Midway and was discovered in 1998.

The seabed around the islands is also thought to contain deposits of nickel, zinc and titanium, making the region of potential interest to mining. “Papahānaumokuākea inspired an international movement to safeguard large areas of ocean and create the world’s first generation of great parks in the sea,” said Joshua Reichert, an executive vice-president at Pew Trusts. “By expanding the monument, President Obama has increased protections for one of the most biologically and culturally significant places on the planet.”

2013_02The designation is not universally popular in Hawaii, however. Mining and commercial fishing will be banned in the area, although recreational fishing with a permit will be allowed to continue. Hawaii’s seafood industry has said this restriction will harm the state’s economy and will do little to protect the environment given that fishing in the area is done by individual long lines, rather than trawler nets that indiscriminately wipe out marine species. “What many people for the expansion don’t know is even if this area is protected, foreign fishing vessels likely will continue to fish there as they please,” said Shane Yoshimoto, a fish buyer at the Honolulu Fish Auction, the only fresh tuna auction in the US. “There is insufficient enforcement on the waters to control them, and if our industry is short on supply, foreign countries will be selling it back to us. This is fish and money that should have stayed here in Hawaii all along.” But Matt Rand, director of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy project, said the economic impact “will be very limited”. He added: “Long lines certainly have an environmental impact. They are destructive. The fishermen can still catch all they can catch now, they just have to do it in a different area. We need areas that are off limits.

Credit: Oliver Milman for the Guardian Conservation (Abriged) 26 August 2016