Obama Just Expanded an Already Massive Ocean Reserve in Hawaii

Obama Just Expanded an Already Massive Ocean Reserve in Hawaii

On August 26, President Obama created the largest ecologically protected area on earth by expanding a national marine monument in Hawaii, his home state, to encompass more than half a million square miles. It’s called the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. [1]

The area of remote Pacific waters known for both extraordinary marine life and importance to native cultures is twice the size of Texas. [2]

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was established in 2006 by President George W. Bush. It already covered 140,000 square miles of ocean around the desolate northwestern islands of Hawaii. The monument now encompasses 582,578 square miles of land and sea. [2]

The Laysan duck, one of the most critically endangered waterfowl in the world, makes it home at Papahānaumokuākea, along with a rare species of fish called the masked angelfish. The Galapagos shark is a common sight in the protected waters, as well. [3]

Source: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument – Laysan duck

More than 7,000 species inhabit the monument’s deeper waters, including some of the planet’s oldest animals – black corals that have lived for more than 4,000 years. The coral reefs in the region are some of the healthiest in the world. [2]

In fact, the varieties of species are so multitudinous that many have yet to be identified, including a recently-discovered small, white octopus that scientists have dubbed “Casper.”

The ocean floor is the final resting place of several ships, including the USS Yorktown, which sank during the Battle of Midway in 1942 and has not been visited since it was discovered there in 1998. [1]

Monument Expansion


Obama used his executive authority under the U.S. Antiquities Act to extend most of the monument’s boundary, as well as its prohibition of commercial fishing, out to the 200-mile limit of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). [2]

Debate had been raging on the Hawaiian Islands over the monument and its ban on commercial fishing. Ultimately, however, Hawaii governor David Ige, said the expansion “strikes the right balance at this time for the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, and it can be a model for sustainability in the other oceans of planet Earth.”

Native Hawaiians and scientists the world over have called for stronger protection of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which has been threatened by both climate change and sea-bed mining. [1]

Like commercial fishing, sea-bed mining is also now banned under the expansion.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who helped broker a compromise with groups including Native Hawaiians and day-boat fishermen, said:

“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.” [2]

In his official proclamation, Obama stated:

“It is in the public interest to preserve the marine environment.” [1]

As of August 26, 7 presidents have taken steps to guard the sanctuary, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.

Not Everyone is so Supportive

Republicans say Obama abused his authority under the Antiquities Act, which says any protections must “be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

Fishermen are also displeased.

U.S. Senator Brian Schatz mediated a compromise that allowed fishermen from Kauai and Niihau to continue working their traditional grounds inside the EEZ, while preserving the monument’s existing boundary on its far eastern end.

Displeased, Edwin Ebisui Jr., chairman of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, along with leaders of the 7 other councils that manage regional fisheries along the U.S. coastline all wrote to Obama to urge him to allow them to continue to manage fisheries in any monuments created under the Antiquities Act.

But the ban is just fine with many native Hawaiians activists, who had lobbied for even greater protection so they could continue to traditionally navigate their ships without instruments, as they’ve done throughout history.

William Aila, a former state official and Hawaiian activist, said the expansion of the monument will preserve “a cultural seascape, with the history of the Polynesians who migrated up to Hawaii.”


[1] The Washington Post

[2] National Geographic

[3] Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument 

State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

The Green Leaf (Featured image description: Pearl, a Hawaiian monk seal pup rescued from Pearl atoll, peeks out from her pen at Ke Kai Ola, the monk seal hospital in Kona. Photo credit: Julie Steelman.)