On 26 August, US President Barack Obama expanded the boundaries of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands from its previous size of 362,000 km2 — already one of the largest MPAs in the world — to an enormous 1.5 million km2. The expansion creates the largest protected area, marine or terrestrial, on Earth.

Formerly the boundaries of the MPA extended 50 nm from shore. Now they extend to the full 200-nm limit of the EEZ. All commercial extraction activities, including commercial fishing and any future mineral extraction, are prohibited in the expansion area, as they are within the boundaries of the existing monument. Recreational fishing and the removal of fish and other resources for Native Hawaiian cultural practices are allowed in the expansion area by permit, as is scientific research.

Obama designated the expansion via executive powers he wields under the US Antiquities Act. The move did not require legislative approval from Congress.

Indigenous support

Obama’s action was in response to a proposal and campaign — Expand Papahānaumokuākea (www.expandpmnm.com) — put forward by Native Hawaiian leaders earlier this year. Supported in turn by cultural groups, NGOs, and scientists, the proposal and campaign called for expanding the MPA to improve protection of the region’s marine ecology and cultural seascape (“MPAs as eco-cultural systems”, MPA News 17:5). The northwestern Hawaiian Islands and their surrounding waters are considered a sacred place for the Native Hawaiian community, and play a significant role in creation stories and long-distance voyaging and wayfinding traditions.

In parallel with the expansion, the Obama Administration elevated the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) — a semi-autonomous department of the state of Hawai‘i — to the position of co-trustee of the MPA. This move had also been requested in the Native Hawaiian proposal. The position as co-trustee will provide Native Hawaiian interests with greater influence over MPA policy. Previously the monument’s management system had 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).

“OHA applauds President Obama’s decision to elevate the voice of Native Hawaiians in the management of the lands and waters in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” said Kamana‘opono Crabbe, CEO of OHA. “Papahānaumokuākea is critical to Native Hawaiian spiritual wellbeing, and this action by the President helps revive our connection to our kūpuna [ancestral] islands and reinforce our understanding of Hawai‘i as a contiguous spiritual and cultural seascape.”

Opposition faced uphill battle

Prior to Obama’s actions, there was some opposition to the proposed expansion, namely from Hawai‘i’s tuna longline fishery, the largest fishery in the state. The fishery does most of its fishing outside the MPA’s expansion area, but had occasionally worked inside it, too. Backing the longliners were the regional fisheries management council, various restaurants on the main Hawaiian Islands, and some current and past elected officials.

But opponents faced an uphill battle. The expansion proposal was widely supported by Native Hawaiian cultural groups. It was backed by 1500 scientists at the International Coral Reef Symposium (held in Hawai‘i in June), who co-signed a letter in support to the President. Multiple NGOs, including Pew, provided support behind the scenes. And the concept was shepherded politically by US Senator Brian Schatz, who helped convene public meetings for Obama Administration officials with Hawaiian stakeholders earlier this year. Meanwhile President Obama, who is from Hawai‘i originally, is taking actions like this to burnish his environmental legacy in his final year in office and wields the executive power to make such a unilateral designation.

The convergence of these factors made everything seem to come together relatively quickly — even for the designation of the largest protected area in the world.

For more information:

Presidential proclamation: https://oct.to/ZZt

Obama Administration fact sheet: https://oct.to/ZZv

Office of Hawaiian Affairs announcement: https://oct.to/Z4k

National Geographic article on expansion: https://oct.to/Z4Z

Essay on challenges of managing new area: https://oct.to/Z4T

Just how large is Papahānaumokuākea?

The newly expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is now 1.5 million km2 in size. To give a sense of proportion, that is:

  • More than four times the size of Germany.
  • More than 742,000 times the size of Monaco.
  • More than 200 million football (soccer) fields placed side to side.
  • About 0.4% of the global ocean surface.

Do you have some other size comparisons for Papahānaumokuākea? We would love to hear them! Send to mpanews@u.washington.edu