Last week President Obama made official the massive expansion of the marine reserve that surrounds the islands of Hawaii, making it the largest protected area anywhere on the planet. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument encompasses an area including some of the most northerly tropical coral reefs, deep sea habitats, as well as vital populations of whales, turtles, and fishes. At 1,508,870 square kilometers (582,578 square miles), the reserve will now cover an area twice the size of Texas.
The region is home to an estimated 7,000 species of creatures, ranging from enormous humpback whales to the mysterious black coral (thought to be the oldest marine organisms, living up to 4,500 years old), around a quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth. “This is one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans,” said Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator of Hawaii.
“Expanding Papahānaumokuākea will replenish stocks of ‘ahi [tuna], promote biodiversity, fight climate change, and give a greater voice to Native Hawaiians in managing this resource,” continued Schatz. “President Obama’s declaration is only the beginning. To create continued success, we will need to follow through with management, research, educational opportunities, and enforcement. This declaration sets us on a strong path forward for our irreplaceable environment and the generations to come.”
The new expansion now covers an area twice the size of Texas. NOAA
Originally created in 2006 by George W. Bush to cover 362,073 square kilometers (139,797 square miles), and made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010, the new expansion quadruples the size of the protected area. This makes it not only larger than all of America’s National Parks combined, but the largest protected area on land or sea in the entire world.
Prominent species that will benefit from this protection are the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, of which just over a thousand are thought to survive, as well as the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. The islands of Hawaii are also important wintering grounds for the Pacific population of humpback whales, with 10,000 of the animals migrating to the waters every year before heading to the colder waters of Alaska and British Columbia for summer.
The expansion has been a long time coming, and was announced just before President Obama traveled to Midway Atoll, the site of a military base and battle during World War Two, where he gave a speech warning about the threats of climate change, and how world leaders need to seriously commit to preventing the continued warming of the planet.
Some of the healthiest reefs in the world are found in the reserve. NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr CC BY 2.0