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Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea to Become the World’s Largest Marine Protected Area

By Wayne Sentman

A school of convict tangs ("manini") swim above the reef in Midway Atoll. © Wayne Sentman

President Obama is set to once again make America home to the world’s largest marine protected area by announcing today his intention to nearly quadruple the size of Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced “Papa-ha-now-mow-koo-ah-kay-ah”) Marine National Monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The new monument will encompass 582,578 square miles (more than double the size of the state of Texas), with the majority of it being underwater. The proclamation will also include a stipulation that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs be named a co-trustee of the monument, joining the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources in the management of the area. All commercial resource extraction activities, including commercial fishing and any future mineral extraction, are to be fully prohibited in the monument.

From the official White House press statement, "The area, including the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the Battle of Midway National Memorial, and the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, supports a dynamic reef ecosystem with more than 7,000 marine species, of which approximately one quarter are unique to the Hawaiian Islands. This diverse ecosystem is home to many species of coral, fish, birds, marine mammals, and other flora and fauna, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the threatened green sea turtle, and the endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles. In addition, this area has great cultural significance to the Native Hawaiian community and a connection to early Polynesian culture worthy of protection and understanding."

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was established by President George W. Bush in 2006 using the same executive authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 that was used by President Obama in his announcement today. The expansion of Papahānaumokuākea builds on an effort to protect this important area that began with Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 and has included actions from six presidents (three Republicans and three Democrats). In 2010, Papahānaumokuākea was also inscribed as a mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States.

Map showing the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

For the last several months an effort has been under way to expand Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument under such social media tags as #ExpandPMNM and #GoBigObama. Oceanic Society, along with many of our partners, wrote a letter of support for this effort earlier in the summer, and in June more than 1,500 coral reef scientists voiced their support, saying:

“The geographical location of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, encompassing some of the northern most coral reefs in the world and far to the north and east of the Warming Pool, heightens the value of this area as a refuge and center for supporting resilience to climate change impacts.”

Oceanic Society has been connected to the conservation and ecotourism development of Papahānaumokuākea since 1997, having operated research and natural history travel programs at the remote Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is home to more than 7,000 marine species, with nearly one quarter of them endemic to the region. The Northwest Hawaiian Islands are also the most remote archipelago in the world. According to the Monument website, the islands and shallow water environments are important habitats for rare species such as the threatened green turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, as well as the 14 million seabirds, representing 22 species, that breed and nest there. The islands there also provide final sanctuary for four species of bird found nowhere else in the world, including the world's most endangered duck, the Laysan duck.

A Laysan Albatross flies above resting Hawaiian monk seals on Midway Island. © Wayne Sentman

This is a truly special action by President Obama. One of our favorite quotes about this effort comes from Kekuewa Kikiloi, chair of the Native Hawaiian NWHI Cultural Working Group, who wrote:

“A huge part of Papahānaumokuākea is underwater. When you go there, you have to shift your mindset from one that may be land dominated, to one that is sea dominated. And it changes everything about how you’re experiencing the world.”

We are hopeful that this exciting new announcement will help assure the effective, long-term preservation of this ecologically important and sensitive area.

A giant trevally, or "ulua," in PMNM. The monument is home to one of the last remaining predator dominated marine ecosystems on Earth. © Wayne Sentman


Wayne Sentman is our director of conservation travel programs and an Oceanic Society naturalist since 1998. He is an experienced guide with a diverse background in marine mammal, seabird, and marine debris research. Wayne also co-teaches undergraduate field programs in Kenya on human-wildlife conflict and on the use of social media and art to raise public participation in conservation. He recently received a Master's in Environmental Management from Harvard University.


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