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President Obama Just Created the World’s Largest Marine Protected Area

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is now twice the size of Texas

Papahānaumokuākea may be a mouthful, but now it's the world's largest marine protected area. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

Hawaii's Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was created by President George W. Bush in 2006, was already big. Clocking in at almost 140,000 square miles, it covered ocean that surrounds Hawaii's northwestern islands. But why go big when you could go even bigger? Now, ten years later, Bush's successor, Barack Obama, has more than quadrupled the size of the monument, creating the world's largest marine protected area.

As Reuters reports, the expansion will ban commercial fishing from more than 582,500 miles of the Pacific Ocean, making the monument approximately twice the size of the state of Texas. The monument is home to coral reefs, over 7,000 species of marine life, and even shipwrecks and downed aircrafts from World War II's Battle of Midway. It has been on the Unesco World Heritage list, which characterizes it as “an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world,” since 2010.

The expansion was partly in response to petitions from Native Hawaiian leaders, who joined together in a coalition to preserve what they consider a sacred area. When the protected area was first named in 2006, a working group of Native Hawaiians, academics and other stakeholders came together to give the monument a name that speaks to “a fertile woman giving birth to a wide stretch of islands beneath a benevolent sky.” In a press release, Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said that the area “is critical to Native Hawaiian spiritual wellbeing, and this action by the President helps revive our connection to our kūpuna islands and reinforce our understanding of Hawaiʻi as a contiguous spiritual and cultural seascape.”

While rich in life, that seascape will lack something it has hosted for centuries: fishing. Hawaii’s fishing industry has been staunchly against the expansion, with opponents telling Chris Tanaka for Hawaii News Now in July that the proposal would stymie the ability of local fishermen to catch fish like Ahi tuna, which are particularly important parts of Christmas and New Year’s culinary traditions.

But scientists like those at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tell The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin that given the urgency of climate change and the gigantic biodiversity in the area, which is home to everything from rare black coral to the largest seabird gathering site on Earth, it’s worth expanding protections.

Obama, who has been creating new national monuments and extending existing environmental protections throughout his presidency, apparently agrees. In a release, the White House notes that his administration has protected "more land and water than any Administration in history". Indeed, the Papahānaumokuākea expansion is the second major piece of land preservation the president has announced this week alone. Hawaii may seem far away to some mainlanders, but the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is a reminder not just of the preciousness of its natural resources, but of the sheer magnitude of its treasures.

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