HONOLULU (CN) — President Barack Obama on Friday quadrupled the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii to include some 580,000 square miles of the northwest Hawaiian Islands.
Papahanaumokuakea’s expansion includes a far-flung network of open ocean, coral reefs and windswept atolls, home to over 7,000 species — one-quarter endemic — including whales and sea turtles listed under the Endangered Species Act and the longest-living marine species in the world: black coral, which have been found to live longer than 4,500 years.
In addition to expanding the monument, Obama tapped the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to act as co-trustee of Papahanaumokuakea. The office will serve alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“OHA applauds President Obama’s decision to elevate the voice of Native Hawaiian Affairs in the management of the lands and waters of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” the office said in a statement. “Papahanaumokuakea is critical to Native Hawaiian Spiritual well-being, and this action by the president helps revive our connection to our Kupuna islands and reinforce our understanding of Hawaii as a contiguous spiritual and cultural landscape.”
Known to Native Hawaiians as a cosmological place where all life began and returns to after death, Papahanaumokuakea is sacred. The name Papahanaumokuakea commemorates the union of two Hawaiian ancestors, Papahanaumoku and Wakea, who gave rise to the Hawaiian Archipelago, the taro plant, and the Hawaiian people.
“The ocean is not an empty space, but rather a living entity — a godly entity with tremendous cultural meaning as the home for a host of marine and avian life that are connected to us genealogically, enhancing our understanding and responsibility for their protection,” the office added. “From this perspective, Papahanaumokuakea is an ?aina akua — a sacred realm that man visits to seek mana [spirit] and ‘ike [truth] from our akua [gods] and kupuna [elders]. Not an area to be exploited.
“In a changing world with ever-increasing pressure on our resources we must integrate traditional practices with new ideas to meet the challenges of today.”
The office also noted that a traditional Hawaiian practice of managing resources involves setting up a pu ‘uhonua, which translates literally as “place of refuge” or “sanctuary” — precisely what Obama’s proclamation does.
“In ancient times a person would seek out a pu ‘uhonua for shelter and safety. Not only is it meant for us as kanaka, but is also a concept meant for all creatures,” the office said. “One kupuna who fished in the waters of Papahanaumokuakea for many years recognized the negative human impacts on the area and called for the creation of a pu ‘uhonua so our natural resources could rebound.”
According to the office, Obama’s expansion of Papahanaumokuakea will “create a needed pu ‘uhonua free from fishing pressure; a place of refuge provides balance between exploiting resources and the need for natural patterns of our environment to occur.”
In his proclamation, Obama enumerated some of the features of the unique ecosystem, “home to many species of coral, fish, birds, marine mammals, and other flora and fauna, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the threatened green sea turtle, and the endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles,” a biodiversity rich with implications for research and medicine and other uses.
According to the monument’s media manager Toni Parras, “A single deepwater expedition to the monument in 2003 discovered more than 20 new species of corals and sponges, while an expedition aboard the Okeanos Explorer in 2015 collected 35 species that are either new to science or were not previously known from the region.”
Deep coral reefs at depths of 150 to 450 feet, also known as ‘the coral reef twilight zone,’ represent a new frontier for coral reef research, Parras said.
In his proclamation, Obama cited the need to expand former President George W. Bush’s original 2006 designation given recent scientific evidence that many subject species inhabit areas well beyond the existing monument.
The expansion will not only improve the ocean’s resilience to the effects of ocean acidification, global warming and other climate change — it will also provide scientists a laboratory to monitor these changes, Obama said in a separate fact sheet.
The president will travel to Hawaii this week, where he will address leaders from the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders and the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Wednesday before travelling to Midway Atoll on Thursday to mark the significance of the monument.
His trip may coincide with Hurricane Madeline, currently located 710 miles east-southeast of Honolulu. The Central Pacific Hurricane Center is issuing advisories on Madeline, which is currently forecast to brush the Big Island later this week.
The monument encompasses the outer reaches of the Hawaiian Islands, a long, curving archipelago rising out of the ocean and sinking back down again — a string of volcanic islands formed by a deep plume of magma erupting through the earth’s crust and conveyed in the slowness of geological time on the Pacific Plate to the northwest.
The newest, Lo’ihi, is yet to be born.
Mauna Loa, on the Big Island, rises 33,000 feet from its ocean base — the largest structure on earth.
Haleakela, “House of the Sun,” sits across the Alenuihaha Channel on Maui. Lanai and Molokai flank Maui to the west and north, respectively.
The scale of the islands shrinks as one travels back in time, northwesterly. On windward Oahu, the deeply creased Koolau pali, over which Kamehameha threw his enemies in his drive to consolidate the islands, resembles archaic sculpture, abandoned ruins.
Kauai’s Waimea Canyon — the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” — is a last hurrah, formed by extreme rainfall eroding the island back into the ocean.
Farther to the northwest sit Niihau and Lehua — little, less — until at last the islands sink under their own weight. They leave coral reefs and shallow, watery atolls. Rims of formerly grand mountains now haunted by shark and barracuda — submerged seamounts. Open ocean. Geological processes.
Photos: Dwayne Meadows/NOAA-NMFS