HONOLULU — President Obama used his executive authority Friday to designate the world's largest marine preserve in the remote western portion of the Hawaiian archipelago, the White House announced.
The Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced “Pa-pa-hah-nou-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah”) Marine National Monument, originally created by President George W. Bush 10 years ago, will quadruple in size under Obama's declaration from 139,800 square miles to 582,578 square miles. When it was established in June 2006, it was the largest protected area in the world, but had since fallen to 10th.
The vast ocean area surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is home to over 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and Hawaiian monk seals. On the islands, 22 types of seabirds nest there, including four species that are found nowhere else in the world.
"This historic action taken today by President Obama ensures that one of the planet's most diverse ecosystems will be preserved and protected for future generations," a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
The proposal to expand the monument was submitted earlier this summer by US Sen. Brian Schatz, at the urging by seven prominent Native Hawaiians, in order to protect the area's extensive coral populations, marine species, and combat climate change.
"This will enhance our ability to fish over the next several generations," Schatz said to BuzzFeed News. "We need to set aside portions of our ocean to allow fish stocks to replenish themselves."
"The other thing it does is that it continues to put us on the map with respect to leading on climate solutions," he added.
But not everyone was pleased. The prospect of the monument expansion ignited a fierce debate in the state where lawmakers and longline fishers united to oppose the protections.
In May, 30 state lawmakers, including Hawaii House Speaker Joe Souki, signed a letter asking Obama not to expand the monument and questioning his authority to take the action.
Former Hawaii Gov. George Ariyoshi, along with former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, and former US Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Native Hawaiian, also wrote a letter in July opposing the expansion, saying "there is no transparency in this process."
“Hawaii is the only State in the union comprised of small islands surrounded by the ocean and remotely located thousands of miles from any other land mass,” the letter said. “We depend on the ocean for food, livelihood, recreation, and the perpetuity of traditional native Hawaiian cultural practices.”
Hawaii's commercial fishing industry opposed the move, arguing that it would significantly restrict access to the state's most popular catch: bigeye tuna. A rally was held in July, with about 200 people in attendance, including local chef Nico Chaize, who said the expansion would lead to higher food prices and a reliance on frozen imported fish.
The bigeye tunas that roam the waters around Hawaii are an apex predator classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which reported a 42% decline in the giant fish's global population over a 15-year period.
The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WestPac), a Honolulu-based council established by Congress to manage offshore fisheries, also opposed the proposed enlargement of the marine monument.
"The expansion will not make Hawaii fisheries more productive, while negatively impacting the Hawaii longline fishery, which is the State’s largest fishery," WestPac said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "Closing off over 60% of Hawaii’s water to commercial fishing ... makes no sense. Indeed, today is a sad day in the history of Hawaii’s fisheries and negative blow to our local food security."
A provision was included in the expansion to make co-trustee the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a public agency governed by an elected board that works for Native Hawaiians.
"The elevation of OHA to a Co-Trustee position rightfully places the Native Hawaiian voice at all levels of decision making in the governance of Papahānaumokuākea," the agency said in a statement. "This has been a ten year effort to achieve this position."
Ancient Hawaiians traveled up and down the Hawaiian archipelago and considered the area sacred. Cultural sites are still found on two islands, Nihoa and Mokumanamana.
"As a native Hawaiian, I’m very very pleased that we get to honor and respect this place as a manifestation of the kumulipo, our creation chant," Sol Kahoʻohalahala, a member of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, said to BuzzFeed News. "Now that we have been finding more new discoveries of plants, animals, and creatures of Papahānaumokuākea, then it helps us to understand that the idea of creation is still happening in this area of the ocean, therefore it would be wise to protect it as soon as possible."
In the protected area, recreational fishing and Native Hawaiian cultural practices will still be allowed to take place in the expanded area with a permit, while all commercial activities will have to cease, including fishing and ocean mining.
Obama said he will travel to Hawaii to make the announcement on Wednesday at the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress. The president will then visit Midway Atoll, one of the few landmasses within the monument where people conduct research, to mark the expansion.
To make the designation, Obama invoked the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that grants executive power to designate national monuments with the stroke of a pen, and is among the most controversial tools used to set aside land.
"I think we did it in the right way," Schatz said. "Even though the Antiquities Act pretty much gives the president total authority to declare a monument, without any public input, we insisted that they do public meetings and scoping sessions with stakeholders and they did it."
Obama made the announcement following the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service, and has worked throughout presidency to leave a legacy of conservation. The president has now used the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect than 548 million acres of federal land and water, more than double what any of his predecessors have protected.
On Wednesday, Obama used the same act to establish a national monument in Maine's North Woods. Earlier this year, he also designated new monuments in Southern California, creating the second largest desert preserve in the world. The year before, he established monuments in Nevada, Texas, and California.