At the start of this cruise, I reflected on my own family’s history exploring the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Obviously, I’ve known the basic facts of this history for many years, but only in recent months have I started to put those facts into a broader context, and begun to appreciate the role that I and my family have played in documenting this magnificent part of the planet. But the reason for my nostalgia, and also the main theme of this post, is not about the past; it is about the future … my own future, my family’s future, and, in fact, the future of all humanity and of Earth itself.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are so unique and precious, that six United States Presidents have taken legislative steps to ensure the protection of this unique region. In response to the threat of seabird poachers, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903-1909 established the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation. Thus began more than a century of expanding legislative protection, continuing with President Franklin D. Roosevelt; who extended the protections to include all wildlife in 1940. In the year of my birth (1967), President Lyndon Johnson presided over the inclusion of several submerged reefs and other areas within the protection, and two decades later President Ronald Reagan created the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to further increase the management of resources. President Bill Clinton, in 2000-2001 took one of the boldest steps in establishing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, which President George W. Bush expanded into a Marine National Monument. A more detailed history of these presidential actions is available online.
In many ways, this trend has been driven by increasing awareness of the importance (both natural and cultural) of these islands, resulting from continuous and ongoing research. The trend has also been driven by our increasing awareness of the impact we have on this planet. We are at a unique moment in human history, which in important ways is also a unique moment in the history of Earth. We are the first generation of humans to realize our own impact to the planet on a global scale. We are also very likely the last generation of humans in a position to do something about it. We are rapidly approaching a precipitous threshold beyond which too much damage will have already been done.
Now, thanks to a grass-roots effort launched by a group of prominent native Hawaiians, scientists, fishermen, cultural practitioners, conservationists, educators, and many others, there is an effort underway to convince President Obama to finish the job started and perpetuated by six of his predecessors, and expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument out from its existing 50-mile limit to the full 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This effort has grown from humble beginnings to a major campaign supported by tens of thousands of people, and is garnering increasing media attention. Members of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) have traveled to Honolulu to hear testimony from a diverse array of constituents, and the support for the expansion is overwhelmingly positive.
The rationale to expand the Monument is incredibly compelling, both in terms of cultural value and natural resources. From the scientific perspective, there are several major reasons why this expansion is so important. First of all, the United Nations has adopted through the Convention on Biological Diversity a target for marine protected area (MPA) global coverage of at least 10% by the year 2020. In 2014 the World Parks Congress recommended increasing this to at least 30%, a value that has been corroborated by a recently-published meta-analysis of marine protected areas and their efficacy. Currently, less than 1% of the world’s oceans are protected (around 2% of waters with some form of national jurisdiction). Clearly, we have a long way to go to reach even the modest UN goals, let alone the more realistic (in terms of effectiveness) goal of 30% protection. The proposed expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument would represent an important step in the right direction.
It also represents an extremely rational step, strongly rooted in available science. The biodiveristy of this region is not only incredibly rich, it is incredibly unique. In my recent post on Kure Atoll, I noted our recent publication documenting the highest rate of marine endemism (species found nowhere else on Earth) ever reported. What’s interesting is that this and other research has found that endemism increases with increasing depth.
We don’t yet know whether this pattern extends to the deep sea plains and massive sea-mounts located in the proposed expansion area, but some preliminary exploratory dives made by NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer have made some amazing discoveries outside the existing monument, and within the proposed expansion area. These include numerous likely new species, many of which are probably found only in this area. This is actually astonishing, considering how little exploration has been conducted within the proposed expansion area (the vast majority of research so far has been focused within the existing Monument). One of the confirmed new species discovered in the proposed expansion area is the world’s oldest living thing — a black coral thought to be over 4,200 years old! With an expanded Monument and further research and exploration, the discoveries that await will no doubt be extremely exciting.
Another extremely important aspect of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is their location across a latitudinal gradient in the northern Pacific. The islands cross the Tropic of Cancer into more northern subtropical latitudes, and lie at the northern boundary of the greatest impacts from ocean warming. Coral reefs and other ecosystems in tropical regions are under tremendous threat from the combined influences of sea temperature rise (as clearly demonstrated by a powerful video documenting 22 years of sea temperature compiled by NOAA), as well as ocean acidification. As coral reefs in more equatorial regions succumb to these stresses (as they have at Jarvis island), regions such as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands become increasingly important as habitat reservoirs to sustain populations of vulnerable organisms. Although most of the shallow reef habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is already protected by the existing Monument, almost every species within a coral-reef community relies on a planktonic larval stage in their life-history to disperse over larger distances of ocean. The monument expansion will help ensure safe passage for larvae of corals, fishes, and other reef-associated species to help recolonize reefs devastated by the effects of climate change. In essence, the Monument serves as a biodiversity bank, which requires protection for vast distances around it to allow genetic transactions to take place.
Plankton aren’t the only organisms that need the open ocean surrounding the Monument for their protection. For example, several shark species, and in particular Tiger Sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier), are known to migrate over long distances, well beyond the existing Monument boundaries. Indeed, sharks represent an enormous portion of the bycatch from the longline tuna fishery, with almost one shark bycatch for every two tuna taken. A quarter of all Tiger shark mortality in Hawaiian waters is recorded within the proposed Monument expansion area. Other shark species, such as the Thresher shark I saw earlier on this cruise, also inhabit this region. Many other pelagic species, including those eaten by humans, and those that feed the millions of sea birds inhabiting the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, depend on the vast open ocean included within the proposed Monument expansion.
These are just a few of the reasons why the expansion of the Monument makes sense. The American Antiquities Act of 1906, which President Obama would invoke to expand the Monument, stipulates that the protected area “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected”. When I met with the President’s CEQ members in Honolulu, I was asked whether the full 200-mile expansion could be justified within this context. My answer was that the smallest area compatible with proper care and management is, in fact, much larger than the proposed expansion area (given the migratory patterns of pelagic fishes, seabirds, and larval distributions). Unfortunately, the jurisdiction of the United States government only extends for 200 miles, so that is the maximum our government is able to legally protect. Additional information and perspectives on why the Monument expansion is so important is included in a video interview released today by Think Tech Hawaii with my friends William Aila (one of the original instigators of the expansion effort) and Andy Collins (who works for the NOAA Monument program).
The only significant opposition to the Monument expansion is coming from the commercial tuna long-lining industry. However, their highly crafted claims of major economic impact resulting from the proposed Monument expansion are misleading and dubious. Lest anyone make the mistake of interpreting my remarks as being merely a reflection of a bias towards conservation over commercial fishing, it is important to note that every public testimony I have ever given concerning proposed restrictions to commercial fishing have been in support of the fishermen. Indeed, the majority of fishermen in Hawaii support the proposed expansion, because it will likely lead to greater populations of stock throughout the unprotected regions due to healthier populations within the expanded Monument.
In deciding whether to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, President Obama needs to look beyond his own personal legacy, and consider a legacy not only of all of humanity, but the legacy of biodiversity that spans tens of millions of years just within these islands, and billions of years globally. For more than a decade, I have been making the case that global biodiversity is far and away the most valuable and precious resource for the future of humanity. You can hear my rationale in several presentations that are available online, including a TEDx talk, a presentation at the Natural History Museum in London, and most recently, at my (and President Obama’s) alma mater: Punahou School.
I spent several hours today, World Oceans Day, in the ocean off Lisianski surrounded by dozens of sharks decompressing from a deep dive. As I watched the sharks, plankton and other myriad marine life swim past, I was reminded that we are at a pivotal time in human history. My friend Sylvia Earle has said, “What we do — or fail to do — in the next 10 years will have a magnified impact on the next 10,000 years.” Time is quickly running out for the health and well-being of thousands of generations of humans yet to come, and for the planet as a whole. With bold action, we may still be able to change course and leave a legacy that future generations will respect and thank us for. Or, we can stay the course, focus on our own short-term needs, and be remembered for our short-sighted selfishness. The choice is ours. And to me, the choice is obvious.