President Obama will create the largest protected area on the planet Friday, by expanding a national marine monument off the coast of his native Hawaii to encompass 582,578 square miles of land and sea.
The move, which more than quadruples the size of the Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced “Papa-ha-now-mow-koo-ah-kay-ah”) Marine National Monument that President George W. Bush established a decade ago, underscores the extent to which Obama has elevated the issues of conservation and climate change in his second term.
Obama has now used his executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect more than 548 million acres of federal land and water, more than double what any of his predecessors have done.
Many scientists, environmentalists and native Hawaiians have argued that recent scientific deepwater discoveries and threats of climate change and seabed mining warrant more stringent protection of the remote and biologically rich region. The roughly 1,200-mile-long archipelago, which is known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and lies about 270 miles northwest of Oahu, is protected by a buffer of 50 nautical miles from shore in all directions.
“The oceans are the untold story when it comes to climate change, and we have to feel a sense of urgency when it comes to protecting the ocean that sustains us,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who helped broker a compromise proposal with groups including native Hawaiians and day-boat fishermen.
All commercial extraction activities, including commercial fishing and any future deep-sea mining, will be prohibited in the expanded monument. However, recreational fishing, removal of resources for traditional Hawaiian cultural purposes and scientific research will be allowed with a federal permit.
Obama will highlight his announcement Wednesday in an address before the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders and the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, and will travel the following day to Midway Atoll, which is located within the current monument.
Longline fishermen lobbied against any new protections, arguing that their operations eschew damaging practices such as trawling and need flexibility to sustain an annual catch valued at more than $100 million.
“We move all over the ocean, in the way the fish move,” said Jim Cook, co-owner of POP Fishing and Marine, adding that the new restrictions mean that 60 percent of federal waters off Hawaii are now closed to fishing.
With Friday’s action, a total of seven presidents — starting with Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 — have taken steps to safeguard part of the archipelago, which is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the world. It features the largest seabird gathering site in the world, with more than 14 million birds from 22 species, nearly all of the remaining endangered Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian green sea turtles and Laysan albatrosses.
Recent research expeditions have unearthed extraordinary features beyond the existing monument boundaries such as the world’s oldest living animal — a black coral estimated to be 4,500 years old — and six massive seamounts, one of which is nearly 14,000 feet high and teeming with life. This area also includes the USS Yorktown, which sank during the Battle of Midway in 1942 and has not been visited since it was discovered there in 1998.
Daniel Wagner, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who served as the scientific lead for the agency’s deepwater expeditions in the region a year ago and again in February, said every one of the 50 biological samples the remotely operated vehicles recovered were either new species or “not known to live in the area.”
“We’re seeing a lot of life, a lot of new life and a lot of very old life,” he said. “Things have not been disturbed for a very long time.”
Wagner said he is particularly concerned about future underwater mineral extraction, given the rich deposits of manganese, nickel, zinc, cobalt and titanium in the region. “If they’re not protected, they’re going to be exposed to mining,” he said.
Matt Rand, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program, said intact ecosystems like these “offer a glimpse of what our planet was like before the impacts of human activity, and it is critical that we preserve places in this way, both as a window to the past and for future generations.”
A change Schatz suggested to the proposal carved out areas for day-boat fishermen in Kauai and Niihau to continue operating, which won the support of influential state officials such as Democratic state Sen. Ron Kouchi. Kouchi said in an interview that he could back the expansion as long as it would be the last one.
“One of the questions the fishermen are asking is, ‘When will it stop?’ ” he said.
Federal officials estimate that five percent of current commercial fishing efforts will be displaced. Longline operators already catch about half their fish in international waters, and they reached their annual catch limit for big-eye tuna in early August.
However, Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, said the industry’s fleet of 145 boats could not match the lobbying power of well-financed environmental groups such as Pew.
“We’re obviously going up against environmental organizations that have billions of dollars,” Martin said. “For somebody to feel good, we’re going to force U.S. fishermen out of waters.”
Several Republicans have accused Obama in recent years of abusing his authority under the Antiquities Act, which instructs any protections to “be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
But Richard Pyle, a researcher at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum, said he and other scientists have concluded that the interconnectivity of the region — including the fish larvae that are dispersed on currents and the sharks and other pelagic fish that travel vast distances — extends beyond federal waters to the high seas.
“The minimum space necessary for protection, it’s more about 350 to 380 miles, but of course we don’t have the jurisdiction for doing so,” Pyle said.
Some Native Hawaiian activists, moreover, lobbied for greater protection so they could continue to observe traditional voyaging practices in which they navigate without instruments. Hawaii’s Department of Natural Resources and Office of Hawaiian Affairs will serve as a trustee in managing the monument.
William Aila, a former state official and Hawaiian activist, said Thursday the president’s move will preserve “a cultural seascape, with the history of the Polynesians who migrated up to Hawaii.”
He recalled that when he journeyed to Mokumanamana, or Necker Island, in 2009, “you could feel the presence of your ancestors,” not just in the earth but in “the symphony of birds, all night and all day long.”
Asked what he thought of the monument expansion, Aila switched to Hawaiian. “Olu olu,” he said. “In English, that’s ‘very pleasant.’ ”