On March 21st, President Biden directed the Secretary of Commerce to consider expanding the marine national monument around the Pacific Remote Islands by initiating a National Marine Sanctuary designation. This vast monument encompassed the waters surrounding seven islands and atolls across five areas southwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. These South Pacific islands and reefs include Jarvis, Howland, Baker, Wake Island, Johnson and Palmyra Atolls and Kingman reef.
Under presidential decree, President George W. Bush in 2005 designated the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) using the Antiquities Act. Under the Marine Monument, the five areas were incorporated into protected management of 50 nautical miles surrounding each of the islands and atolls.
The potential new National Marine Sanctuary would conserve 777,000 square miles (700,000 km2) by extending to the 200nm jurisdictional limit, including the existing Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument (PRIMNM) and currently unprotected submerged lands and waters.
Why a Sanctuary?
In addition to expanding the area of protection, the potential benefits of a sanctuary designation include the additional protection and management under the National Marine Sanctuary Act. National Marine Sanctuaries are designated under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, requiring extensive public process and administrative action by NOAA or legislative action by Congress. National Marine Monuments, are designated by the President under the Antiquities Act and do not require public engagement. Removing or changing Sanctuary designations requires extensive public review and Acts by Congress.
Monuments however, can be altered or even removed as experienced by the Trump Adminstration’s compromising several monuments, including a proposal to dismantle the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument created under the Antiquities act under President Obama.
Protecting these remote islands, including the proposed Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Sanctuary within the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument, will provide stricter protection and can avoid challenges from future administrations. The expanded protections afforded by the National Marine Sanctuary will also add nearly 6% to marine protected area coverage in the United States waters, fulfilling the 30% by 2030 national target outlined in the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment in their America the Beautiful Plan. However, when these goals of marine protection are reached most of the protected area is lightly or minimally protected, providing limited benefits to species and ecosystems.
With only 1.9% of the waters surrounding the continental USA protected, most marine protection in the United States is in the Pacific. A scientific study reported in 2022 that 96% of protected ocean habitat in the United States is in the central Pacific Ocean, including 99% of the no-fishing and highly protected area. Fully protected ecosystems enhance species recovery, support cultural values and maintain marine biodiversity of marine ecosystems.
To protect this critical marine ecosystems and wildlife, the proposed National Marine Sanctuaries require implementation, and must be actively managed, and highly protected from extractive activities. The PRIMNM and Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monuments currently prohibit commercial fishing. This high level of protection should be given to the newly expanded Sanctuary to prevent future damaging activities, like deep-sea mining, to the ecologically sensitive deep-water habitats and associated seamounts.
The Biden Administration plans to collaborate with Pacific Island Indigenous communities, providing appropriate cultural recognition, and initiate a collaborative process for selecting culturally appropriate names for the monument. However, the Sanctuary designation process is time consuming often taking several years, requiring extensive consultation within and between various agencies, governments, and the public, placing these waters at risk to fishing and extractive impacts. Within the next 30 days, NOAA will issue a Notice of Intent (NOI) to begin the public scoping process to initiate designation of a national marine sanctuary in the Pacific Remote Islands.
With more intact coral reefs, threatened and endangered wildlife, and important pelagic species like sea turtles, sharks and whales, the Pacific Remote Islands house some of the healthiest, biodiverse, and wildest ecosystems in the Pacific Ocean. The surrounding ocean hosts unique deepwater species and habitat, and the waterways have a rich history of Indigenous habitation and use, including wayfinding using winds, stars, and currents, connecting Native Pacific islanders across the Pacific, including Hawai’i.
Shark Stewards, along with several other organizations including the Pacific Island Coalition, is urging managers of the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA to support increased protection of these reefs, including migratory species and pelagic and reef species of sharks and rays as part of the draft Monument Management Plan, expected by the end of 2023.
The coral reefs of the and marine ecosystems of the Pacific Islands support healthy wildlife, provide climate resilience, and provide a variety of cultural and socio-economic benefits. We must act now to support these important efforts protecting vanishing wildlife and imperiled coral reefs.