The relationship between indigenous people* and MPAs can be one of shared advantages and cultural transfer. Many indigenous cultures have a history of managing natural resources sustainably. If MPA practitioners can harness that cultural knowledge — and cultural support — while accepting native people as partners, all may benefit.

In 2010, MPA News reported on co-management efforts involving indigenous people. In that issue, Miwa Tamanaha of KAHEA — an alliance of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and environmental advocates — described this relationship:

“Indigenous people…should not be treated simply as advisors to a process that is imposed upon them. Marine areas, however remote, are part of an eco-cultural system in which people, place, and culture are inextricably intertwined. MPAs must responsibly become part of that eco-cultural system, and when done right, will be appropriate to their place.” (MPA News 12:2)

But what does an “eco-cultural system” look like in practice? Can co-management of such systems be designed to ensure sustainability, both of the ecosystem and indigenous culture? And what role should non-indigenous culture play in it?

Right now there are several MPA planning efforts in progress — in the US, New Zealand, Chile, Canada, and elsewhere — where those questions are under discussion. Perhaps more than at any time in the MPA field, native peoples are central players in the planning of several high-profile MPAs. And a consistent theme in these efforts is the call by indigenous populations for a greater say in decision-making.

Papahānaumokuākea: Expanding an MPA that has fostered the re-emergence of cultural traditions

With a name that commemorates the union of two Native Hawaiian ancestors, the 362,000-km2 Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument encircles the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). The remote, nearly uninhabited archipelago and its waters are considered sacred to the indigenous population of the main Hawaiian Islands to the east: Native Hawaiians view the region’s islands, ocean, and wildlife as their spiritual kinfolk.

Although Native Hawaiians historically did not live or fish significantly in the NWHI, the waters are a link to a once-thriving, centuries-long culture of open-ocean voyaging and wayfinding that they conducted, similar to other Polynesian cultures. They consider the NWHI waters and wildlife vital to the survival of these traditional practices, which rely on natural phenomena — from winds and waves to the presence of marine life and birds — to signal key moments and locations.

The seaward boundaries of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), in which all commercial fishing and mining are banned, extend 50 nm from shore. When former US President George W. Bush designated PMNM in 2006, the only other very large MPA in the world was the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, whose boundaries extend between 40 nm and 135 nm from shore. A seaward limit of 50 nm for PMNM seemed a reasonable compromise at the time.

Now 10 years later, a campaign championed by several Native Hawaiian leaders is calling for expanding the boundaries out to the full 200-nm limit of the EEZ. Like the current MPA, the expanded area would be off-limits to commercial extraction. In the name of improving protection of the region’s marine ecology — including 110 seamounts in the proposed expansion area — and management of the cultural seascape, the expansion would increase PMNM’s size to a giant 1.6 million km2 in area. Incidentally this could make it the largest MPA in the world. (A report presenting the full cultural and ecological case for expansion is at

The campaign, called Expand Papahānaumokuākea (, launched in early 2016 and has already gained political traction, including seemingly with US President Barack Obama. Officials from his administration held a listening session on the idea with some stakeholders earlier this year. Obama could designate the expansion — via executive powers he wields under the US Antiquities Act — before he leaves office in January 2017. The campaign received backing from 1500 scientists at the International Coral Reef Symposium (held in Hawai‘i in June), who co-signed a letter in support to the President.

There has been opposition as well, namely from Hawai‘i’s tuna longline fishery, the largest fishery in the state. Although the fishery does most of its fishing outside the NWHI’s 200-nm limit, it sometimes works inside the proposed expansion area, too. (The fishery has been managed sustainably in terms of tuna, but proponents of PMNM expansion point to bycatch: the fishery catches thousands of sharks each year, among other non-target species.) Backing the longliners are the regional fisheries management council and various restaurants on the main Hawaiian Islands. Even some Native Hawaiian leaders have suggested that permanent fishing closures are not wholly consistent with traditional Hawaiian resource management, which favored temporary closures (called kapu) instead.

One of the champions of the Expand Papahānaumokuākea campaign is Kamana‘opono Crabbe, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (, a semi-autonomous department of the state of Hawai‘i. “We as Native Hawaiians have matured as a people and culture,” says Crabbe. He notes the recent re-emergence of voyaging and wayfinding in Native Hawaiian and Polynesian society — including canoe trips to PMNM and the current worldwide Hōkūleʻa voyage to spread awareness of ocean protection ( — as well as a joint research trip to PMNM involving federal and Native Hawaiian researchers. “We have become whole in recognizing our role as stewards of land and sea, and have recognized the ecosystem value of expanding the boundaries.”

The Expand PMNM campaign leaders would also like Native Hawaiians to have more of a say in the policy of the protected area. Their proposal calls for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to be elevated from co-manager of the monument (from which they help oversee day-to-day management of the MPA with six other co-managers) to the level of co-trustee, from which they would wield more influence over MPA policy. The monument’s current management system has just three co-trustees — the US Secretary of Commerce (through NOAA), US Secretary of the Interior (through US Fish & Wildlife Service), and the State of Hawai‘i (through the Department of Land and Natural Resources):

Crabbe says an example of such high-level policy-making could include how to address the zoning of wilderness areas in PMNM, a topic that has arisen at another US MPA in the Pacific region (the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument). Should the concept of wilderness mean an area that is free of the imprint of humans, or should it allow for a Native presence? Crabbe says the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, with strong connections to the Native Hawaiian community, could help inform such a discussion.

The current management plan for PMNM was approved in 2008 and was intended to last 15 years ( An expansion of the MPA would likely require the plan to be rewritten, allowing Native Hawaiians and others to re-envision, and shape, what the MPA could be for them for the next 15 years. “We are opening a door,” says Crabbe about what the MPA has meant to Native Hawaiians. “The past 10 years have been like a child who hasn’t seen his grandparents for a very long time being able to see them again. It’s been emotional and spiritual. We’ve also learned invaluable lessons on how to be better managers.”

Kermadec/Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary: Requesting more power for indigenous voices

In September 2015 at the United Nations, the New Zealand Government announced its plan to designate the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, a 620,000-km2 no-take area around its Kermadec Islands archipelago, located to the northeast of New Zealand’s two main islands. The MPA would include a chain of underwater volcanoes and the world’s second deepest ocean trench, and would be 35 times larger than the country’s existing 44 marine reserves combined. The Government introduced legislation to the NZ Parliament to enact the new sanctuary (

The plan immediately encountered questions or outright opposition from indigenous Māori leaders, who had not been consulted on it. The Māori people hold fishing rights in the Kermadecs region under a treaty with the government. Although Māori have not fished there for several years, they did not want the government simply to take their rights from them, particularly with little to no consultation. (An explanation of Māori fishing rights in the Kermadecs is at

Te Ohu Kaimoana — the Māori Fisheries Trust, which represents all Māori tribes (or iwi) on fisheries matters — filed suit in March 2016 to block the designation, calling it an illegal confiscation of Māori rights. The case is currently before the High Court of New Zealand.

Rick Witana is chairman of the Te Aupōuri iwi from the far north region of New Zealand. The cultural importance of the Kermadecs — or Rangitāhua in Māori language — stems in part from the fact that Te Aupōuri iwi descend from crew on canoes who voyaged to and through the islands over centuries. Witana has expressed support for the sanctuary bill’s conservation goals but has questions about the proposed MPA’s management.

“The iwi of Te Aupōuri, like other iwi in Aotearoa [New Zealand], are conservationists,” says Witana. “We live the values of kaitiakitanga, which is a Māori term that equates with environmental sustainability. We support protection of the environment where needed, and which is reflected in our traditional management terms of rahui (temporary closures) and mataitai (fishing reserves).”

Witana believes the fisheries in the Kermadecs region are being sustainably managed and protected under New Zealand law — including via existing no-take areas out to 12 nm from the shore of the Kermadec islands. (The proposed Kermadec/Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary would effectively expand the no-take area from 12 nm to 200 nm.) He says Māori fishing rights in the region are perpetual and can co-exist with biodiversity protection measures as proposed through the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill. “We do not believe it has to be one thing or the other,” he says. “Continuing Māori fishing [in the sanctuary] will not detract from the measures proposed to protect the biodiversity. We are open to discussing options around fishing that do not legislate away Māori rights.”

The Te Aupōuri iwi have also called for equal representation for Māori on the sanctuary management board. Under the government’s original Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill, the minister of conservation and minister of Māori affairs would have the power to appoint a majority of the board: five members appointed by the ministers, and two appointed by iwi. In contrast, Te Aupōuri would prefer three and three, with the board seeking to make all decisions by consensus. (Incidentally, equal board representation would be similar to that of the management board for Canada’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, which has an equal number of representatives from Canadian Government and the indigenous Haida Nation — MPA News 12:2.)

Lastly, says Witana, the board should be chaired by one of the representatives appointed by iwi. “This would reflect the importance of the area — geographically, culturally, spiritually and historically — to Māori,” he says.

* Note: An indigenous population is an ethnic group whose ancestors inhabited a place prior to the arrival of another, eventually dominant culture. By definition, indigenous peoples are distinct from the prevailing culture that surrounds them. In this article, MPA News uses “native people” and “indigenous people” interchangeably.

For more information:

Keola Lindsey (Papahānaumokuākea program manager), Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hawai‘i, US. Email:

Rick Witana, Te Aupōuri, New Zealand. Email:

BOX: New map shows overlap of indigenous peoples with marine ecosystems and MPAs in Central America

A new map by IUCN shows where indigenous peoples live in Central America and how their territory overlaps with ecosystems and protected areas. The map indicates that the bulk of still-productive marine habitats remaining in the region — coral reefs, mangrove forests, seagrass beds — are found within or bordering the areas occupied and used by indigenous peoples.

IUCN says credit for this goes to the traditional management and use of those areas’ natural resources, as well as conventional conservation efforts by national governments. “The map provides clear evidence that the most effective way to protect the region’s ecosystems and their biodiversity is by providing support to those peoples who have traditionally been their stewards,” states IUCN.

In total, native populations use and occupy over 80,000 km2 of marine area in Central America, most of which is not officially designated as protected area. Of the MPAs that do exist in the region, examples of co-management by indigenous peoples include Cayos Miskitos in the Autonomous Region of the North Caribbean Cost of Nicaragua; Q’eqchi territory in Izabal, Guatemala; and Rio Platano Reserve in the Muskitia of Honduras.The map Indigenous Peoples, Protected Areas, and Natural Ecosystems of Central America, which also shows indigenous peoples’ overlap with terrestrial ecosystems, is available at

BOX: More examples of eco-cultural discussions

Chile: In 2015 the Chilean Government announced its intent to designate a 631,000-km2 MPA around Easter Island, and has been consulting with the island’s indigenous Rapa Nui people on zoning. Under a plan proposed by the Rapa Nui, the MPA would allow fishing by locals to continue within 50 nm of the shoreline; for non-locals, all fishing would be banned from the shoreline out to the 200-nm limit. The MPA co-planning is in contrast to the island’s terrestrial national park, which Chile designated in 1935 with no Rapa Nui consultation.

Chagos Archipelago: In 2010 the UK designated the waters around the Indian Ocean archipelago of Chagos as an MPA, with most of it as a no-take zone (MPA News 11:6). The designation was opposed by many Chagossian islanders, whom the UK forcibly removed from the archipelago in the late 1960s in favor of building a US military base there. Displaced Chagossians have sued the UK government for the right to return to the islands, and would like to determine their own management of marine resources.

Canadian Arctic: The petroleum company Shell Canada made news in June 2016 when it relinquished its claim to 8000 km2 of oil exploration leases in Lancaster Sound on the Arctic coast of Canada. The move renewed discussion of what the boundaries of a proposed National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) for the region should look like. Parks Canada (the national parks agency) has stated for years that the long-planned protected area would need to exclude the oil claim area, as NMCAs by law do not allow any petroleum exploration or exploitation. Leaders of the indigenous Inuit people have argued for the need to protect those waters, which provide critical habitat for narwhals, beluga whales, and other marine mammals ( and