This is a guest blog from James Horrox, which originally ran on www.frontiergroup.org. This is the first in a series of blogs about a report, New Life for the Ocean, which we co-authored with Frontier Group.
One of the world’s largest marine protected areas, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) protects a pristine coral reef ecosystem and deep sea marine habitats across the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Extending for 1,350 miles across the Pacific Ocean, the monument covers more than half a million square miles, including 10 islands and atolls, and is home to thousands of marine species, including mammals, fishes, sea turtles, birds and invertebrates, some of them found nowhere else in the world and several of them threatened or endangered.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are a place of huge spiritual significance in Native Hawaiian culture. In 2006, President George W. Bush established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument – renamed Papahānaumokuākea shortly afterwards – in an effort to protect the extraordinary array of natural and cultural resources within its boundaries. Parts of the area had had various protections in place since the early 20th century, when President Theodore Roosevelt created the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation in response to the over-harvesting of seabirds. With national monument status, however, came a complete ban on all commercial resource extraction, including fishing and mineral extraction, across the entire region. Scientific research, some recreational fishing, and taking of fish for Native Hawaiian cultural practices are allowed with a permit.
In 2010 the PMNM was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2016, under President Barack Obama, the monument was expanded to four times its original size, making it the largest land or marine preserve on earth at that time.
Of the 7,000 species that depend on the PMNM, around a quarter are only found in the Hawaiian archipelago. The islands also play a major role in maintaining a number of endangered species.
The protected waters around the French Frigate Shoals, for example – the largest atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – are home to a flourishing green turtle population. Green turtles are found in coastal regions of more than 140 countries across the world, and all of the populations worldwide are currently listed as either Endangered or Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. These turtles were once abundant in the Hawaiian Islands, but by the late 20th century their populations had been almost completely wiped out in the area. While the species continues to suffer elsewhere in the world as a result of hunting, coastal development, habitat destruction and destructive fishing practices, the protection of the French Frigate Shoals has fostered a “spectacular recovery” of their populations in Hawaiian waters.
Protection of the turtles’ nesting beaches and foraging habitats, coupled with prohibitions on hunting, has enabled successful reproduction cycles free from human disturbance and played a crucial role in their increased numbers. The turtles also travel long distances to foraging grounds outside of the PMNM, such as seagrass beds around the Main Hawaiian Islands, and 30 percent of their migration route falls under the protection of the PMNM. The growth of their population within the monument has been so significant that the IUCN now lists the Hawaiian green turtle as being a population of “least concern.”