Editor’s note: On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) in northwestern Hawaii. At 1.5 million square kilometers (582,000 square miles), it will be the largest marine protected area on Earth.
The waters of the PMNM are home to more than 1,000 species of endemic marine life — meaning that they are found nowhere else — and are considered sacred to Native Hawaiian culture. In a testament to its natural and cultural significance, PMNM was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.
With the world’s oceans losing their ability to provide the benefits that humans have come to rely on — food, livelihoods, climate regulation — the monument’s expansion comes at a critical time, said Aulani Wilhelm, head of the Oceans program at Conservation International, in a recent interview.
Question: From a scientific perspective, what is significant about the expansion of the monument?
Answer: Given the ecological shifts in the oceans due to climate change, Papahānaumokuākea provides a critical location for comparison and study, because this ecosystem is still healthy. It looks and works like what most of the oceans looked like before there was overfishing and climate change and pollution. It’s a sort of living laboratory against which we can measure changes elsewhere in the ocean. So it’s really important from a scientific perspective, and expanding it ensures that this kind of learning continues.
Q: What contributions to our understanding of the ocean has PMNM contributed since it was established?
A: Research conducted there has yielded a treasure trove of data that contributes to our understanding of the ocean. New species are found during nearly every expedition, including the oldest known organism on Earth, a black coral that was found in the region. The monument has also enabled important scientific collaboration, bringing together federal agencies, universities and local research staff. This kind of collaboration is crucial for helping us understand the deep-value water systems that make up most of the ocean. We have a lot to learn yet, and the monument is definitely contributing to our broader understanding.
Q: As a native Hawaiian, what can you say about why is this important to Hawaiians?
A: Native Hawaiians have deep cultural and spiritual connections to this area, and there are numerous significant cultural sites on several of the islands. Native Hawaiian scholars, scientists and educators have been able to access Papahānaumokuākea, something not available to our community prior to establishment of the reserve. This access has enabled the traditional gathering and use of scientifically and culturally important plant and animal material no longer readily available in the main Hawaiian Islands, in order to continue traditions that risk being lost.
There’s also an economic aspect. Marine conservation work in this area conservatively infused about US$ 100 million into Hawaii’s economy; these funds fueled an additional US$ 40 million in research funding, along with private-sector investment in outreach and education programs.
Q: What does the expansion of the monument mean for ocean management on a large scale?
A: For the world, Papahānaumokuākea has already had tremendous influence in shaping ocean policy and governance globally, as evidenced by the growing number of large-scale marine protected areas. Through this expansion, Hawai’i and the U.S. can also demonstrate the potential for effectively managing ocean waters beyond national jurisdictions — the “high seas,” which constitute 64 percent of the total global ocean area and 95 percent of its volume. Even if every coastal nation put their national waters into active management of some kind, the future health of our global oceans would still rest in our ability to ensure adequate management and protection of the ocean areas we hold in common. The lessons learned from an expanded Papahānaumokuākea will offer critical insight into how international bodies and coalitions of nations can begin to do this.
Bruno Vander Velde is the editorial director at Conservation International.
Cover image: A school of fish in Hawai’i. The expansion of a national monument in northwestern Hawai’i will protect habitat that is home to more than 1,000 endemic marine species. (© Frazer McGilvray)
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