Hawaii is home to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, as you may remember if you’ve read our previous entries. It spans about 50 nautical miles of the northwestern Hawaiian island chain, which consists of the tiny remnants of the oldest isles that have drifted in that direction over millennia as erosion whittled down their size. Did you know there are a total of 152 islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, but the state officially recognizes only 137 of them? Well, just last week, Hawaii residents, conservationists and lawmakers gathered at the State Legislature to rally for the expansion of the national monument from its current 50 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles.
Why all this energy and interest devoted to the expansion of the monument? Well protecting the extraordinary ecology of this range of islands is the primary motivation. If you happened to read our blog on the four new algae species discovered in Papahanaumokuakea, that discovery was just scraping the surface. We also shared the discovery of a ghost-like octopod discovered just a couple of miles north of Necker Island, which is also within the boundaries of Papahanaumokuakea. Scientists are discovering whole ecosystems full of undiscovered species in those waters, but what matters just as much to the people of Hawaii is the significance of marine life within the culture and tradition of the native Hawaiian people, which spans back to ancient times. We couldn’t possibly say it better than Kekuewa Kikiloi, Chair of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group. The following is his explanation of what’s at stake.
“As Native Hawaiians, our core identity and survival is tied to the ocean. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is where we believe life originated. All resources in nature – from corals to sharks – have cultural significance for Native Hawaiians and are an embodiment of our ancestors. By expanding Papahanaumokukea, we can help protect our cultural ocean scapes and show future generations that preservation of the environment is preservation of our cultural traditions.”
The goal is to persuade the White House Council on Environmental Quality to expand the sanctuary to protect it from overfishing. An exception to the expansion area would be the waters around the main islands of Kauai and Niihau, along with two fishing buoys for Kauai fishermen. Speaking of fishing, a lot of the urgency is coming from local Hawaiian fishermen who have noticed a decline in the tuna populations.
“We have seen the decline in tuna populations that long-line fishing in Hawaii has caused, subjecting Hawaiians and Hawaii residents to import ahi poke from other countries,” fisherman Jay Carpio explained. “Fishermen like the late Uncle Buzzy Agard led the effort to establish Papahanaumokuakea, and local fishermen are again leading the call to President Obama to expand the monument.”
Protecting the tuna is just the beginning. The islands are home to an astounding array of seabirds, sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, whales, and too many other kinds of marine animals to list. Many of these populations live outside the current range of the monument, and are threatened by this lack of protection. Hawaii is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, and you can imagine how much of that diversity resides in the ocean. Scientists point to black corals estimated at 4,500 years old, which many are now calling the old growth redwood forests of the ocean.
One of the things that stands out this situation is the interconnected nature of marine ecosystems. There are no walls dividing the ocean. That means every time you join us on a Molokini Snorkel Cruise or Lanai Snorkel Cruise, you’re seeing species that are related to those in the northwestern Hawaiian islands, and some of these populations are often intermingling throughout their shared range. If you enjoy Maui ocean excursions and the exciting marine life they reveal, you’ll probably understand why so many people want to expand the monument. If you’d like to learn more about Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, visit www.papahanaumokuakea.gov.