In this day and age, where every marine-related headline is to do with warming oceans or newly-extinct species, it makes a change to finally have a feel-good story of large-scale conservation. Last Friday, August 26, Barack Obama officially expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, creating the world’s largest marine protected area.
The move quadrupled in size a monument that was originally created by George W. Bush in 2006, and declared a World Heritage Site in 2010. Spanning 1.5 millon square kilometres, the marine area is known for its many shipwrecks and downed aircraft from the Battle of Midway – a decisive allied victory and turning point in World War II where the U.S. pushed back towards Japan.
To protect its largely pristine corals and over 7,000 resident marine species, commercial fishing and new mining in the marine reserve is now banned – although it is unclear how the reserve will help mitigate the effects of ocean acidification. A quarter of the life that resides there is unique to the area: rare species such as the endangered green turtle, the Hawaiian monk seal and a 4,500-year-old black coral can be found nowhere else on the planet. The reserve also aims to protect those deep-sea marine habitats that still remain vastly unexplored, allowing scientists to carry out research with an authorised permit.
Firmly in Polynesian territory, the area is also of great cultural significance to the native Hawaiian community, who view the waters as sacred due to the many local creation and settlement stories that are based there. For the locals still set in traditional ways and dependent on the water’s resources to feed their families, the government will grant fishing permits.
The marine reserve follows the idea that to make coral reefs less vulnerable to ocean acidification – as they are being severely hit all over the world – all other threats must be reduced to give them at least a fighting chance. This latest development for marine conservation from the U.S. Government is likely to reassure those who think that the U.S. is not doing enough in terms of ocean protection. Still, it is unclear how successful the project will be, and there are many questions concerning how the extremely large area is to be protected – however, for Obama, it is a sweet swan song and addition to his “eco-legacy” that at least suggests “I tried.”