Refuge System Expands to Nearly One Billion Acres

Orange Fish

The extensive coral reefs found in Papahānaumokuākea are home to over 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago.
Photo: USFWS

Orange Fish

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s nesting population of Laysan albatross live in Midway Atoll Refuge, within the Papahānaumokuākea Monument.
Photo: Dan Clark

August 29, 2016 - President Obama has signed a proclamation expanding the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii to become the world’s largest marine protected area: 370 million acres of one of the most diverse and threatened ecosystems on the planet and a sacred place for Native Hawaiians.

“With this expansion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now manages the largest system of lands and waters set aside for the conservation of wildlife and wild places” said Service Director Dan Ashe. “No other entity on this planet can make that claim (or even comes close).”

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge have been key parts of the marine national monument since it was established by President George W. Bush in 2006. The Service manages the monument with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, the State of Hawaii and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The extensive coral reefs found in Papahānaumokuākea - truly the rainforests of the sea - are home to over 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Many of the islands and shallow water environments are important habitats for rare species such as the threatened green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, as well as the 14 million seabirds representing 22 species that breed and nest there. Land areas also provide a home for four species of birds found nowhere else in the world, including the world's most endangered duck, the Laysan duck.

In addition, this area has great cultural significance to the Native Hawaiian community, including creation and settlement stories, and a connection to early Polynesian culture and is used to practice important activities like traditional long-distance voyaging and wayfinding.

In recent years, technological advances have spurred new scientific findings, greatly increasing our understanding of the areas adjacent to the original monument. New satellite technology allows scientists and researchers to ‘see’ the topography of the seafloor and can track individual animals, such as whales and seals, providing a better understanding of foraging and migration patterns. Ship-based sonar can show not only the relief of the ocean bottom, but also what types of habitat exist in these extremely deep locations. Undersea vehicles venture to the ocean depths and send back video of never-before-seen species. This increased understanding – and appreciation – of deep sea habitats and their role in the larger ocean ecosystem, is the fundamental reason for expanding the boundaries of the original monument.

Additionally, the monument area contains several shipwrecks – including the USS Yorktown and several Japanese vessels – and downed aircraft from the Battle of Midway in World War II, marking a final resting place for the more than 3,000 individuals. This announcement comes in advance of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway next year.

Commercial fishing and other resource extraction activities, which are currently prohibited in the boundaries of the existing monument, are also prohibited within the expanded monument boundaries. Noncommercial fishing, such as recreational fishing and the removal of fish and other resources for Native Hawaiian cultural practices, is allowed in the expansion area by permit, as is scientific research.

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