Papahānaumokuākea and the New Era of Conservation

With the expansion of this Marine National Monument, so too must our responsibility and agenda expand.

Sea life carry no passports, and their marine habitat has no walls or political boundaries. Today our conservation philosophy is one step closer to encompassing whole, connected ecosystems beyond man-made borders, but let this be a milestone in our efforts — not a finish line.

On August 26th, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation expanding Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, building upon the original 2006 creation of the monument by his predecessor President George W. Bush and re-affirming its enormous ecological and scientific value. With a stroke of the presidential pen, each in their own time established the largest-ever protected conservation area on the globe. The ocean conservation actions of both leaders in this new century now significantly exceed all land conserved in the previous 100 years. As we celebrate the centennial of our national parks this year, this marks an important milestone in our national and global marine conservation efforts. It serves as catalyst to what many are calling the “Blue Centennial,” a critical piece of our conservation future.

Former President George W. Bush established the original Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. At 139,818 square miles it was already the largest protected area on earth. President Obama has now expanded it to 582,578 square miles. Courtesy of to some oddities of history and a popular conservation heritage that transcends politics, the United States finds itself as the only powerful nation in the world with the reach, capacity, and will to protect such large swaths of Earth’s last remaining wilderness areas. In doing so, we set the stage for a future in which the strength of our nation is directed towards preservation, restoration, and salvation of natural capital — rather than conflict and exploitation.

For the last eight years I have served on the board of the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation, which plays a role in supporting, funding, and programming for the newly expanded Hawaiian Marine National Monument, several other super-sized Pacific marine national monuments, and our 13 National Marine Sanctuaries — America’s national parks underwater. They include marine treasures from Monterey Bay to Key West, from the Texas Gulf to the Olympic Coast and beyond. Since Papahānaumokuākea was created as the first super-sized national monument, we have learned that it is just as challenging and important to manage and enforce the conservation objectives of these places as it is to declare and demarcate them in the first place. With this most recent expansion, so too must our responsibility and agenda expand.

Our marine conservation efforts must not conform to political boundaries because the benefits we draw and the risks we impose on our oceans are global and fungible for us all. The recent work of Conservation International in establishing both enormous, transnational ocean conservation “seascapes” and the global ocean health index highlight this reality.

With a protected physical area more than 3.5 times the size of California, Papahānaumokuākea, as well as other monuments and sanctuaries, require rapid mobilization of more innovative approaches to how we explore, monitor, manage, and measure our national treasures and global patrimony. Past practices and older technologies are inadequate to the task, and innovation in the technology and tools for conservation — such as drones, sensors, high-performance optics, low-orbit satellites, communications technology, and data aggregation and predictive analytics — will be as important as the policy breakthroughs to conserve these natural assets on presidential paper.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is approximately 3.5 times the size of California. Map courtesy of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

This is much more complex than simply keeping Midway Island’s landing strip open for the occasional determined diver to experience the purest big-blue the planet has left.

This means adequate monitoring and enforcement of international conservation commitments; that these waters cannot be over-harvested for bluefin tuna and that certain species such as minke and sperm whales cannot be taken at all, irrespective of cultural claims, even when uncomfortably dealing with some of our closest allies.

More than 7,000 species can be found in Papahānaumokuākea. Photo by Paulo Maurin. Courtesy of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

This means evolving in such a way that our own Navy is able to accommodate and support conservation practices, requiring new practices and places to operate when maneuvering with munitions and during vital “war games.”

This means active deliberation and agreement on new rules of engagement among the many stakeholders that traverse this huge swath of the planet for trade; to induce a new era of awareness and stewardship of the true value our oceans hold for life on our planet.

While we aspire to increase our justifiable mapped zone of conservation to larger proportions, the negative impacts of modern society are still outpacing these efforts: massive circulating “gyres” of floating plastic and garbage growing to areas larger than Texas; depletion and collapse of wild edible fish stocks; the antiquated poaching of whales — Earth’s most majestic sea mammals — for no modern need or benefit. All of these externalities are choking our precious sea life and the ecosystems that sustain us. An ongoing and worsening “tragedy of the commons” compels us to devise and sustain a remedy for the ultimate commons, our oceans, which sustain life on our planet.

A new species of octopod discovered in 2016 at depths of more than 4,300 meters (14,100 ft) below the ocean’s surface. Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Hohonu Moana: Exploring Deep Waters off Hawaiʻi.

Much hard work lies ahead to confront these challenges. But for the present, let’s savor this unifying moment of national ocean conservation with global impact. Let’s celebrate a decade of grand bipartisan ocean stewardship and a century of common cause in conservation. Let’s use this moment to rededicate, educate, and relate this to the lives of so many who are affected in ways less understood; insufficiently aware of the essential connection of the oceans to our existence and to our sustenance. The Blue Centennial could not be arriving a moment too soon.

Top image credit: Claire Fackler.

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