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This National Monument is Home to Rare Species Found Nowhere Else in the World

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument turns 10 this month. Here’s what that means for Hawai‘i.


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Red-footed boobies sit atop driftwood at Tern Island in the French Frigate Shoals, part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Photo: Koa Matsuoka/NOAA Fisheries

 

June 15 marks the 10-year anniversary of President George W. Bush declaring the area encompassing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a marine national monument, the first in the U.S. “It pretty much ushered in what we call a new genre of marine conservation, which is largescale marine protected areas,” says NOAA’s Toni Parras, communications manager for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. “After we were designated as, at the time, the largest marine national monument [in the world], others started cropping up.” Now there are 16 around the globe, all part of Big Ocean, a network organization cofounded by Papahānaumokuākea.

 

The 140,000-square-mile site is home to more than 7,000 species, a quarter of them endemic. Since becoming a monument, 463 monk seals have been saved by direct intervention from the field team; a portion of the Laysan duck population, the “most endangered waterfowl in the world,” has been translocated to other islands to ensure survival (“They’ve been doing really well, they’ve had chicks and now their numbers are way up again,” Parras says); new species—and, in some cases, new genera—have been discovered, including the cute octopus some are calling Casper, and a minivan-size sponge.

 

A juvenile Hawaiian monk seal rests on a beach on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals.
Photo: Mark Sullivan/NOAA Fisheries

 

But the monument wasn’t created just for its biodiversity and marine life—it also protects cultural resources. “That was another really distinguishing feature of the designation,” Parras says. And, in July, Papahānaumokuākea will be celebrating its sixth anniversary as the first and only mixed natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country, which she says reinforces its significance and value. Cultural access is granted to Native Hawaiians (with a permit) for a variety of reasons, from repatriating iwi to conducting traditional ceremonies. Ceremonial and ancestral shrines remain on some of the islands from ancient Hawaiians who once lived there. It is said that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are where life springs and spirits return after death. There have also been maritime heritage discoveries, including whaling ships and World War II-era plane- and shipwrecks.

 

In the past 20 years, NOAA and its partners (there are seven federal, state and nongovernment agencies that co-manage the area) have removed more than 930 tons of marine debris and restored hundreds of acres of native habitats. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group is advocating to expand the monument and add the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a co-trustee of the management committee in order to further protect far-ranging species such as sharks and sea turtles that travel outside Papahānaumokuākea’s boundaries. (Read more at HAWAI‘I Magazine.)

 

A delicate siphonophore photographed in the area that is being considered for possible monument expansion.
Photo: Courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Hohonu Moana

 

From June 19 to 24, the International Coral Reef Symposium, which brings together thousands of researchers and policy makers, will take place in Hawai‘i for the first time. Parras and her team are preparing for the event in order to “reach a really broad audience, just to let them know that the monument even exists, and where it is and what it is, and why it’s so special.” There will be a public event tied in as well: Learn more about the symposium here.

 

Parras says the anniversary is to “celebrate the accomplishments we’ve made in recognizing the natural and cultural significance of the place, and in our management how we integrate modern science and traditional ways of learning and observing. It’s not just Ph.D.s going up to the monument and diving, taking specimens or doing whatever they do,” she says, “but Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners also access the monument to do their own cultural protocols, ceremonies and research in their own ways. So that’s something we’re trying to highlight more.”

 

Learn more about the monument’s accomplishments at papahanaumokuakea.gov/10year, and take a virtual tour through Google Street View.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY KATRINA VALCOURT

 

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