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Papahanaumokuakea (formerly Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument) Hawaii

French Frigate Shoals (NOAA)

Crystalline blue waters and unspoiled white sand beaches and the spectacular coral reefs at the northwestern Hawaii islands are a rare example of the way oceans are supposed to be. Over 7,000 species live around the islands, including the endangered green sea, leatherback, and hawksbill sea turtles; the Caretian Woodpecker, and the Hawaiian Mouse; along with fourteen million nesting seabirds. The area holds great cultural significance to Native Hawaiians and has a connection to early Polynesian culture.

President Theodore Roosevelt named many of the islands an island refuge, and in 2001 President Bill Clinton designated the waters around the islands as a coral reef reserve. In April of 2006, President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush viewed a screening of the documentary film Voyage to Kure with its director, Jean-Michel Cousteau. The film's portrayal of the flora and fauna of the northwestern islands compelled President Bush to move quickly. On June 15, 2006, President Bush signed a proclamation for the Northwestern Hawaiian Marine National Monument, the largest marine protected area in the world. (Read the proclamation here (pdf)).

The national monument covers roughly 140,000 square miles of reefs, atolls, and shallow sea in the Pacific Ocean. It spreads across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the Midway National Wildlife Refuge, the Hawaiian National Wildlife Refuge, and the Battle of Midway National Memorial. The Fish and Wildlife Service will manage the land areas of the national monument and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will administer the oceanic areas.

Many similar ecosystems on Earth have been destroyed by overfishing. Within the national monument, all commercial and recreational fishing will be prohibited by 2011 and visitors will need permits for snorkeling or diving. Creatures such as the endangered monk seal, whose populations were devastated by the overfishing of spiny lobsters, will have a chance.

Native Hawaiians maintain strong cultural ties to the land and sea and see themselves as caretakers for the oceanscape. In Native Hawaiian traditions, the islands are a sacred place where life springs from primordial darkness and to where spirits return after death. The large area of the monument also contains historic properties related to the pivotal Battle of Midway, fought during the Second World War. Archeological sites on some of the larger atolls can be expected to provide more information about the use of the area by historic and ancient humans.

Upon hearing about the President’s proclamation, responses have included:

  • “It’s so remarkable to see large predators doing their thing in the wild, to see a tiger shark eat a fledgling albatross. It’s awe-inspiring to see a 13-foot-shark launch out of the water to grab an albatross that's making its first flight.”
  • Christopher Lowe, professor at the California State University at Long Beach. Read more at NPR.


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