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Protection in the Pacific Remote Islands: Fifteen Years in the Making and Still Counting…

On March 21st, President Biden hosted the White House Conservation in Action Summit, where among other conservation actions, he directed the Secretary of Commerce to consider expanding the marine national monument around the Pacific Remote Islands by initiating a National Marine Sanctuary designation. This is the third President to recognize the conservation importance of these islands, and we applaud this effort. These expanded protections would further safeguard unique, healthy ecosystems, a vast diversity of marine wildlife, and the cultural values of native Pacific Island communities. However, this is far from the beginning of the story of protection in the Pacific Remote Islands, and much more still lies ahead to fully deliver effective protection.

A Brief History

Marine Conservation Institute first provided the case for support to President George W. Bush in the closing months of his presidency, and in January 2009, he designated the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM). This vast monument encompassed the waters surrounding seven islands and atolls across five areas southwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. Each of the five areas was incorporated into management units bounded by 50nm boxes around each set of islands and atolls. This designation incorporated the pre-existing National Wildlife Refuges in the first 12nm from shore through co-management with the Secretary of Commerce (NOAA) and the Secretary of the Interior (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), except for Wake and Johnston Atolls, which are currently managed by the Department of Defense. In 2014, we worked with the National Geographic Pristine Seas to provide a updated conservation plan to President Obama who then expanded PRIMNM to 200 nautical miles for three of these areas - Johnston Atoll, Wake Atoll, and Jarvis Island - making it the largest such protected area in the ocean.

Nearly fifteen years have passed since the original designation, and despite continuous improvement in our scientific understanding, increased recognition of threats from climate change, and the continued decline in marine populations, PRIMNM managers are still operating under interim regulations from the fishery management council. Marine Conservation Institute and several other organizations have been part of a monument community group advising managers of the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA, and the draft Monument Management Plan is expected by the end of 2023. The new National Marine Sanctuary would overlap the existing Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument (PRIMNM) and expand protections nearly 700,000 km2 by extending to the full 200nm jurisdictional limit around the remaining two management areas – Howland/Baker Islands and Palmyra Atoll/Kingman Reef.

Marine Conservation Institute founder, Dr. Elliott Norse, with President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, and former Congressman and Marine Conservation Institute Emeritus Board Member Jim Greenwood
Marine Conservation Institute founder, Dr. Elliott Norse, with President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, and former Congressman and Marine Conservation Institute Emeritus Board Member Jim Greenwood

Implications of a National Marine Sanctuary

In addition to expanding the area of protection, the potential benefits of a sanctuary designation include the additional overlays of the National Marine Sanctuary Act. National Marine Sanctuaries are designated under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, requiring extensive public process and administrative action by NOAA or legislative action by Congress. National Marine Monuments, on the other hand, are designated by the President under the Antiquities Act and do not require (although some still include) public engagement. As evidenced by President Trump’s dismantling of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, monuments created via the Antiquities Act may face challenges from future administrations. We’re encouraged to see that President Biden plans to expand collaboration with Pacific Island Indigenous communities, afford appropriate cultural recognition, and initiate a collaborative process for selecting culturally appropriate names for the monument, inclusive of the seven National Wildlife Refuges, and the potential National Marine Sanctuary. At the same time, Sanctuary designations are notoriously slow processes, and we urge both the current monument management plan and the sanctuary designation to proceed with the urgency needed to protect these fragile coral reef ecosystems.

Map with boundaries of PRIMNM over time

The Next Steps Toward Effective Protection

To deliver conservation benefits, the National Marine Sanctuary will need to be implemented, actively managed, and highly protected from extractive activities. The designation process is thorough and time consuming, requiring extensive consultation within and between various agencies, governments, and the public. Upon designation, regulations must be developed, and a management plan must be drafted and published, which typically takes years. Since PRIMNM won’t have a management plan for another year or two, both PRIMNM and the new National Marine Sanctuary will need coordinated, clear plans for effective and adaptive management. The PRIMNM currently prohibits commercial fishing, and the same high level of protection must be afforded to the newly expanded Sanctuary to prevent future damaging activities to the ecologically significant deep-water habitats and associated seamounts.

An Eye Toward Representative Protection

While the expanded protections afforded by the National Marine Sanctuary add nearly 6% to MPA coverage in the United States, and fulfill on paper the 30% national target outlined in the Biden-Harris Administration’s America the Beautiful, as conservation scientists we know there is still work to do and caution against viewing this as the finish line. A recent study found that 96% of MPA area in the United States, and 99% of fully and highly protected area, is in the central Pacific Ocean. While additional protection in the Pacific should be celebrated, we must recognize that our work is not done until we have protected ecosystems, species, and cultural values that represent the diversity of marine ecosystems across all the United States. Only 1.9% of the waters surrounding the continental United States are protected, and most of that area is lightly or minimally protected, providing limited benefits. The waters of the United States host an incredible diversity of ecosystems and species. The coral reefs of the southeast, estuaries of the mid-Atlantic, seagrass and kelp beds of the West Coast, and many other ecosystems have the potential to support healthy wildlife, increase climate resilience, and provide a variety of socio-economic benefits – but we must protect them and allow them to achieve their full potential. We must harness the dedication and initiative it took to create such an incredible network of protection in the Pacific and do the same for a representative portion of the waters surrounding the continental United States.

We applaud Biden’s announcement but recognize that this is only the beginning of the process, and there is still much work to be done.

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