Papahānaumokuākea: soon to be the world’s largest marine protected area?

By Erin Pickett, MS student, Oregon State University

On January 29, 2016, a group of native Hawaiian community leaders and conservation practitioners wrote a letter of request to President Barack Obama asking him to expand Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument1

Papahānaumokuākea is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and at the time of its creation in 2006, it became the world’s largest fully protected marine area2. The monument encompasses 140,000 square miles and surrounds the Northwestern Hawaiian Island (NWHI) chain, which extends about 2000 km northwest from the main Hawaiian Islands to Kure atoll (see map below). This monument was originally created through use of the Antiquity Act of 1906, which grants the President of the United States the authority to protect valuable public land through the establishment of a national monument3. The initial letter of request sent to President Obama in January called on the President to use his executive power to expand Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument.

This letter of request was put simply. The letter writers believed that as an island boy himself, President Barack Obama understands the importance of the ocean to the people of Hawai’i, especially future generations. This letter and the discussions that have since followed it, emphasize not only the biological value of conserving this large swath of marine habitat, but also the cultural significance of preserving such a place. In the field of marine biology we don’t traditionally think of marine protected areas (MPAs) as “…cultural seascapes that have meaning and significance in the formation and perpetuation of oceanic identity4,” however in the case of the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea, cultural justification is aptly interwoven with biological conservation. The proposed expansion of this marine protected area is especially significant to me for this reason.

While I am not native Hawaiian, much of my life is tied to the ocean. My personal life and my current career as a master’s student of marine science are driven by aloha and malama ‘āina. These two concepts are core tenets of Hawaiian culture and they describe a profound love (aloha) and deep respect and sense of caring (malama) for the āina, or land. I have never felt more aloha or such a strong sense of caring for a place than for Papahānaumokuākea.

Papahānaumokuākea is a sacred place; a place where the Hawaiian people believe life began. Today, the islands, atolls and the surrounding ocean within the monument continue to create and sustain vast quantities of life, in the form of marine species. The use of the monument is limited to cultural, scientific and educational activities, while activities such as commercial fishing and deep-sea mining are prohibited4,5. One primary benefit of large MPAs is that they improve the state of an ecosystem by supporting sufficient numbers of large and far-ranging predators6. The waters surrounding the NWHI support high numbers of large fish, sharks, marine mammals and seabirds. A total of 7,000 known species exist here, 25% of which are endemic7. The expansion of this monument would mean greater protection for these species, and for important pelagic habitats such as seamounts. Underwater seamounts are biodiversity hot spots and a vast number of them exist outside of the current boundaries but within the limits of the proposed expansion of the monument. Far ranging top predators such as seabirds would benefit greatly from an expanded protected area that would reduce the chance of interactions with longline fishing vessels. The foraging ranges of many of the 14 million seabirds that exist in the monument extend beyond its current boundaries4,8. The Hawaiian longline fishery is especially dangerous for Laysan and black-footed albatross, and hooks an estimated 1,000-2,000 of each species per year9.

The Laysan albatross, or mōlī, as it is known in Hawaiian, is the species that captured my attention the most during my time in Papahānaumokuākea. In 2010, I worked for the NOAA/NMFS Hawaiian monk seal research program on Laysan Island. While our work on Laysan was focused on the Hawaiian monk seal, it was hard to miss the energy of the presence of the mōlī. We had the opportunity to observe these birds come to the island to make nests, lay eggs and raise their chicks. The incessant sound of hundreds of thousands of albatross whistling and clicking their beaks at their mates and with their chicks is one I will never forget. You can hear these sounds for yourself in a video that Rachael included in a previous blog post about her time on Midway atoll. On Laysan, I had the opportunity to connect deeply with a natural place and this connection reinforced the feeling of aloha ‘aina.

While in the NWHI, we occupied much of our daily life with not only observing and connecting with the wildlife, but also with carrying out conservation activities, such as monitoring the local monk seal population and removing marine debris from beaches. While Laysan is remote, it has not escaped the far reaches of marine plastic pollution (see Rachael’s blog for more on this). Additionally, many of the NWHI are in a perpetual state of restoration and invasive species removal projects. After Laysan, I spent time working on Lisianski Island and then Kure atoll, where we worked tirelessly to eradicate an invasive weed, Verbesina encelioides, and replace it with native plants that we had cultivated. Throughout all of these activities, there was always a feeling that it was our duty to malama ‘aina, to care for and protect these fragile islands and the species that depend on them.

A significant amount of momentum has been gained since January, with one important development being a formal proposal that outlines the main points of this request to the President. These include a request to expand the perimeter of the monument to the limits of the U.S. exclusive economic zone, which lies an additional 150 nm beyond its current boundaries. This expansion would more than quadruple the monument’s current size and make it the world’s largest contiguously protected area. The Obama administration has sent delegates to Hawaii to learn more and has intentions to develop an official federal proposal10. While the timeline of this is unclear, a local coalition of community leaders are actively garnering public support to encourage the Obama administration to sign this expansion into law.

There was a meeting held last night on Kauai to hear public input regarding the proposed expansion of Papahānaumokuākea and because I was not able to attend I was inspired to write this blog to share my thoughts about why I believe further protection of this monument is a pono (moral, just, righteous) decision. The place-based connection I have with Hawai’i and its surrounding waters are what have guided my career in the fields of marine science and conservation. For me, this connection is with Hawai’i, but for you it may your own hometown, island, backyard or nearby mountain peak.

Our love of these places is significant because it facilitates a greater understanding of why they are important to protect. In the field of conservation today, it is especially critical that we foster these types of connections. Preserving wild places, whether they be remote island ecosystems or more easily accessible nature parks, is one way we can ensure that more people have the opportunity to make these connections.



1 Eagle, N. (2016). Honolulu Civil Beat. Hawaiians Press Obama to Expand NW Islands Marine Monument. Retrieved from

2 Pew Charitable Trust. Global Ocean Legacy-Hawaii (2016). Fact sheet.Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument: Expanding protections to conserve Hawaiian culture and biodiversity Retrieved from:

3 “Antiquities Act” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 4 March 2016. Web. 2 August 2016.

4 Kerr, J., et al. 2016. PUʻUHONUA: A PLACE OF SANCTUARY. The Cultural and Biological Significance of the proposed expansion for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

5 Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument: Resource Protection. Retrieved from:

6 Edgar, Graham J., et al. “Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features.” Nature 506.7487 (2014): 216-220.

7 National Marine Sanctuaries (2016), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed on 01 February 2016:

8 Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument Management Plan 2008; KE Keller, AD Anders, SA Shaffer, MA Kappes, B Flint, and A Friedlander, 2009. Seabirds: A Marine Biogeographic Assessment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

9 Cousins, K.L., et al. Managing pelagic longline-albatross interactions in the North Pacific Ocean. Retrieved from:

10 Eagle, N. (2016). Hawaii Lawmakers To Obama: Don’t Grow Marine Monument. Honolulu Civil Beat. Retrieved from:


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