Letter to NOAA: Support the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Sanctuary

January 30, 2022

Ms. Athline Clark

Superintendent

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site

1845 Wasp Blvd, Building 176

Honolulu, HI 96818

Re:  NOAA-NOS-2021-0114

Dear Superintendent Clark,

We strongly support designating parts of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as a national marine sanctuary to enhance protections and safeguard resources in the marine portions of the Monument.  We believe sanctuary designation will complement the efforts of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state of Hawaii, and other federal agencies to conserve this nationally significant area and its cultural resources and bolster strong and lasting protection for the marine environment. 

Papahānaumokuākea is a sacred place with deep cosmological significance to Native Hawaiians who have a genealogical relationship to all living things in the Hawaiian archipelago.  The Monument is a  mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Site.  It preserves sacred places, stories, artifacts, and strong Polynesian cultural ties to the land and seas, dating back more than a thousand years.

Coral islands, undersea volcanoes, flat-topped undersea mountains, banks, and shoals stretch 1,350 miles.  The Monument supports a diversity of life, including over 7,000 species, many found nowhere else on earth.  Threatened green sea turtles and endangered Hawaiian monk seals are among the rare species that inhabit the island chain. 

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act established the National Marine Sanctuary System to protect areas of the marine environment that have special conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, cultural, archeological, scientific, educational, or esthetic qualities.  The monument is an area of national significance that merits this protection in addition to the protections provided by the Antiquities Act.

 It is critical that sanctuary designation strengthen and enhance the protection of Papahānaumokuākea,  as designated under the Antiquities Act and the Presidential Proclamations.  Those efforts should include integrating traditional Hawaiian knowledge systems, values, and practices into management.   We oppose any regulatory or management measures that would decrease the current level of protection within the Monument and Monument Expansion Area.

In this letter, the terms “Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument” and “Monument” mean both the original Monument’s boundaries and the Monument Expansion Area.

  • The role of scoping in the Environmental Impact Statement process.

Scoping is a critical early step in the EIS process. It sets the boundaries of the analysis, helps to identify information sources, and helps to focus alternatives and identify issues to address within the EIS. A comprehensive scoping process is essential for identifying the “reasonable range” of alternatives in the EIS to address the purpose and need of proposed agency action. Each reasonable alternative must be rigorously explored and objectively evaluated, and each alternative considered in detail so that reviewers may evaluate their comparative merits. NOAA has an obligation under NEPA to compare the protections currently in place with the complexities of managing a national marine sanctuary.  The environmental impact statement should comprehensively explain the current protections and compare them to what would be changed by a sanctuary designation. 

  • The spatial extent of the proposed sanctuary and boundary alternatives.

The existing boundaries of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument cover 582,578 square miles.  We recommend that NOAA’s preferred alternative for the sanctuary’s boundaries follow the current Monument boundaries, including the Monument area originally designated in Presidential Proclamation 8041 of June 15, 2006, and the Monument Expansion Area as specified in Presidential Proclamation 9478 of August 26, 2016.  The sanctuary should include all the waters, submerged lands, and living and non-living resources within these areas.  The shoreward boundary should extend to the mean high tide. 

  • The location, nature, and value of the resources to protect by a sanctuary.

In 1999, President William J. Clinton established the Northwestern Hawaiian Island Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve by Executive Order 13178.  In 2006, President George W. Bush established Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument by Presidential Proclamation 8031.  The proclamation included the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the Midway National Wildlife Refuge, the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and the Battle of Midway National Memorial.   In 2010, UNESCO designated the monument as a mixed World Heritage site for its natural and cultural significance.  In 2016, President Barak Obama expanded the monument to protect historic and scientific interest objects, geological and biological resources part of a highly pristine deep-sea and open ocean ecosystem, and an area of cultural significance to the Native Hawaiian community.  The monument has significant living and non-living resources, cultural and natural seascapes, and geological features which deserve protection through sanctuary designation.  

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is unique.  The Monument is one of the few intact, large-scale predator-dominated reef ecosystems left in the world.  It is home to more than 7,000 marine species.  The islands and atolls—Kure (Hōlanikū), Midway (Kuaihelani), Pearl and Hermes (Manawai), Lisianski (Kapou), Laysan (Kamole), Maro Reef (Kamokuokamohoali’i), Gardner Pinnacles (‘Ōnū nui and ‘Ōnū iki), French Frigate Shoals (Lalo), Mokumanamana, and Nihoa—provide breeding areas for Hawaiian monk seals and four species of sea turtles, nesting sites for more than 14 million seabirds, and more than 5,000 square miles of coral reefs.  Because this region is remote—nearly 3,000 miles from the nearest continent—life forms evolved here that exist nowhere else on earth.  Researchers working in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument continue to encounter new species: since 2000, scientists have discovered scores of new species of fish, coral, invertebrates, and even algae.  Remarkably, on a 2015 expedition, scientists from NOAA and other institutions found that some deep reefs in Papahānaumokuākea were inhabited only by endemic species.  This is the only known marine area where all resident species are endemic.  

At least 23 species protected under the US Endangered Species Act inhabit the Monument, two national wildlife refuges, and two state-protected areas within its boundaries.  For example, Papahānaumokuākea provides nearly the entire Hawaiian nesting habitat for the threatened green turtle.  On the undisturbed beaches, the turtles come ashore to bask in daylight, a behavior not seen in most other parts of the world.

Critical geological features include seamounts and a non-volcanic ridge that extends southwest towards the Johnston Atoll, which are biodiverse hotspots that provide habitat for deep-sea species.  Seamounts, ridges, and other undersea topographic features enable marine organisms to range throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago and between Hawaii and other archipelagoes.  Further, these features are home to species unknown to humans, with possible implications for research, medicine, and other uses. 

The Monument provides critical foraging habitats for marine species and birds.   Laysan albatross, Black-footed albatross, Bonin petrels, shearwaters, petrels, tropicbirds, Short-tailed albatross, and other seabird species forage in the Monument, along with five species of protected sea turtles.  Twenty-four species of whales and dolphins have been sighted in the Monument.  Three species are threatened or endangered: sperm whales, fin whales, and sei whales.  Acoustic evidence also shows that endangered blue whales visit the area and may migrate past the Hawaiian Islands twice a year.  Sharks, including tiger sharks and Galapagos sharks, are key species in the Monument’s ecosystems

Native Hawaiians regard the Monument’s atolls, islands, and waters as sacred places from which all life springs and ancestral spirits return after death.  The Native Hawaiian belief systems regarding this genealogical relationship inform a set of responsibilities, rights, and privileges that Hawaiian people inherited to honor and protect their ancestors.  The Kumulipo describes the Hawaiian universe as comprising two realms, Pō and Ao.  Ke ala polohiwa a Kāne (the dark shining path of Kāne), also known as the Tropic of Cancer, is considered the border between Pō and Ao.  The island of Mokamanamana is located on this boundary and is the center of convergence between the two realms; the island sits near the entrance of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, as only the second island in the northwestern part of the chain.  The Monument’s name commemorates the union of Papahānaumoku and Wākea, the divine parents of the island chain, the taro plant, and the Hawaiian people.  Some islands have several names: one or more Hawaiian names that highlight a natural feature such as an abundance of sharks or a sacred quality ascribed to the place in traditional teachings, and an English name that often commemorates a historic shipwreck nearby.

Long-distance voyaging and wayfinding is a unique and valuable traditional practice that the Native Hawaiian community developed and advanced.  Wayfinding relies on celestial, biological, and natural signs, such as winds, waves, currents, and the presence of birds and marine life.  The Monument’s open ocean ecosystem and its natural resources continue to be important in the Hawaiian Archipelago’s cultural voyaging seascape and training ground for new generations of wayfinders.

Shipwrecks and aircraft in the Monument are of great historical interest and importance.  The Monument is the final resting place of thousands of people lost during World War II battles.  The submerged sites and scattered artifacts tell the stories of sailors and navigators who ventured throughout the Pacific.  Interpretation of these shipwreck sites and the broader maritime heritage of Papahānaumokuākea Monument further our understanding of our connection to this place and our role in protecting its natural and cultural resources. 

The sanctuary designation should protect all living, non-living, cultural, and maritime resources of the Monument and the cultural and natural seascapes of which they are an integral part.

  • Management measures for the sanctuary and any additional regulations that should be added under the NMSA to protect Monument Resources.

Overall – Resource protection is the highest priority of the Monument, and the designation document, management plan, and regulations must be consistent with this priority.  The sanctuary designation must augment and strengthen existing resource protections, increase regulatory compliance, ensure enforceability, and provide natural resources damage assessment authorities and interagency coordination of activities as provided in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. 

Presidential Proclamations 8031 and 9478 include prohibited activities which NOAA should incorporate into the sanctuary designation document, management plan, and regulations.  Further, Presidential Proclamation 9478 provided a framework for managing the Monument Expansion Area, and NOAA should codify those protections in the designation document, regulations, and management plan.

Integration of Native Hawaiian cultural values and principles – “Mai Ka Pō Mai is a collaborative management framework intended to guide the Monument’s co-trustees integration of traditional knowledge systems, values, and practices into management.  Based on Hawaiian cosmology and worldview, the framework includes five management domains, four of the management domains are referred to as Kūkulu, and the central management domain is the Ho’oku’i.  We strongly urge NOAA to embrace the framework and work with the Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, OHA, and the Native Hawaiian community to include the Mai Ka Pō Mai framework into the designation document, management plan, and regulations. 

Fishing The Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is the primary law that governs marine fisheries management in US federal waters.  Its objectives are to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, increase long-term economic and social benefits, and ensure a safe and sustainable seafood supply.  ONMS Director John Armor’s letter of November 19, 2021, to Chairperson Soliai of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council stated that the MSA is the appropriate statute for managing fisheries within the proposed sanctuary.  We strongly disagree and urge NOAA to adopt a joint regulatory approach at a minimum.

As mentioned above, the cultural and natural landscape of Papahanaumokuakea, their services, and the living and non-living resources in the Monument deserve protection under the sanctuary designation.  Fish species are a critical part of the landscape, and their management must be part of the ecosystem.  The National Marine Sanctuaries Act is the only ecosystem-based act that can achieve this goal through regulation.  The ONMS regulations should be in addition to MSA regulations and not a backstop.

Should ONMS choose not to regulate fisheries under the NMSA ( a point we strongly disagree with), then the Secretary of Commerce must ensure the proposed regulations from the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council are consistent with Executive Order 13178 and Presidential Proclamations 8031 and 9478.  If they are not, the Secretary of Commerce must reject the draft regulations. 

Maritime Transportation – In 2008, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) designated the Monument a “Particularly Sensitive Sea Area.” The Monument Management Board put additional domestic measures and best practices into place to protect the original Monument area.  We recommend that the IMO designation applies to the Monument Expansion Area.  Further, as part of the sanctuary designation process, ONMS should determine if additional regulatory and management controls are necessary.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed sanctuary designation.  We look forward to working with NOAA to enhance and strengthen protections for the Monument.