Ten years ago, the newly-designated Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was the biggest marine reserve in the world. Since then, this uninhabited area of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands has been overshadowed by nine even larger protected areas. That could change, however, if environmental groups in Hawaii have their way and President Obama decides to expand Papahānaumokuākea from its current 140,000 square miles to 625,507 square miles–an area four times the size of California.
The expansion would add much-needed protections to important ecosystems near the islands – from open ocean waters to deep-sea habitats. More than 7,000 marine species make this area their homes, and scientists continue to discover new species of fish, invertebrates, and algae on a regular basis. Many, like black coral, the world’s oldest living organism, are found nowhere else on Earth. The expansion would even protect animals that live above the water, like the tropical sea birds that nest on islands and atolls in the proposed preserve.
The call to expand Papahānaumokuākea first came from an online petition started by surfer and photographer Mike Coots, which now boasts 40,000 signatures. These online activists have been joined by marine scientists, conservationists, fishermen, local politicians, and lawmakers, all urging Obama to taken action.
One of the supporters of the proposal is Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who outlined a detailed plan in a letter submitted to the president on Thursday. His plan calls for the protection of only 582,578 square miles, with certain areas carved out of the preserve to allow recreational and subsistence fishing in certain areas. However, marine biologists have pointed out that this plan could allow fishing fleets to “pick off” fish migrating from protected to unprotected areas.
Whether or not President Obama ends up making provisions for fishing vessels, a decision on the expansion is likely to come soon. Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, Obama has the power to unilaterally alter the borders of the refuge. He has been holding listening sessions with local government leaders, Native Hawaiians, fisherman, scientists, and environmental groups in order to develop a full picture of how the expansion might affect the area. While no final decision has yet been made, sources close to the President told the Washington Post that the President is poised to make the new designation in the coming months.