August 31, 2016

Story: Hawaii’s Coral Reefs take Center Stage as Papahānaumokuākea National Monument becomes largest Marine Protected Area in World

By Kristen Weiss

Coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean are making a lot of headlines this year. In June, Pacific Island leaders joined forces with leading coral reef experts in a call to action for stronger stewardship of these valuable marine ecosystems. Two months later, President Obama announced a proclamation to expand Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, making it the largest marine protected area in the world.

On August 31, President Obama addressed attendees of the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders and the IUCN World Conservation Congress on the opening night of the Congress in Honolulu. He discussed the significance of this monument designation and highlighted how the threat of climate change makes protecting our public lands and waters more important than ever.

The National Momunment will protect Hawaiian reefs like the one depicted above. (Photo: NOAA)

The President’s expansion of the National Monument responds to a proposal put forward by Senator Schatz and prominent Native Hawaiian leaders, which was developed with significant input and support from Hawaiian elected officials, cultural groups, conservation organizations, fishermen and scientists—including Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station Director, Steve Palumbi and former Stanford PhD student (2011) Doug McCauley.

“The coral reefs of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are the largest in the U.S., and are far enough north that they are more likely to survive climate change over the next hundred years than reefs closer to the equator,” explained Palumbi. “Their location and isolation make these reefs ideal for protecting corals, whales, turtles, monk seals, sharks and other ocean wildlife into the next century.”

Indeed, the expansion provides critical protections for more than 7,000 marine species, including whales and sea turtles listed under the Endangered Species Act and the longest-living marine species in the world — black coral, which has been found to live longer than 4,500 years.

Palumbi and McCauley joined other scientists, Hawaiian culture leaders and members of the White House Council on Environmental Quality in meetings coordinated by Pew Charitable Trusts to develop the proposal for expansion.

The monument was originally created in 2006 by President George W. Bush and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. Since then, further scientific exploration and research has revealed new species and deep sea habitats as well as important ecological connections between the existing monument and the adjacent waters. President Obama’s recent designation will expand the existing Marine National Monument by 442,781 square miles, bringing the total protected area of the expanded monument to 582,578 square miles.

Said Palumbi, “In an era where we complain that politics often don’t act past the next election cycle, this expansion is a case where the community and their representatives are looking far into the future, leaving a legacy not just for themselves, but for future generations.”