Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

laysan finches

Laysan finches play in glass floats/marine debris that washes up on shore of islands in the Monument. Photo by: Koa Matsuoka/CC BY-NC 2.0

Preserving More Than Marine Life

Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and an executive order in 1909, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) have been championed by several presidents to help protect and preserve the land and seas and wildlife. On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush signed Proclamation 8031, designating nearly 140,000 square miles of waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument. In 2016, then President Obama increased the coverage area, making Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument the largest contiguous fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag, and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It encompasses 582,578 square miles of the Pacific Ocean—an area larger than all the country's national parks combined.

green sea turtle

Papahānaumokuākea provides refuge for endangered species such as this Hawaiian green sea turtle / honu (Chelonia mydas) at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Photo by: John Burns/NOAA, 2017

Papahānaumokuākea is a sanctuary for endangered species, including blue whales, short-tailed albatrosses, sea turtles, and the last Hawaiian monk seals. Many of the islands and shallow water environments are important habitats for these rare species as well as the 14 million seabirds representing 22 species that breed and nest there.

star fish

A predatory sea star slowly works its way up a bamboo coral on an unnamed seamount in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

Land areas also provide a home for four species of birds found nowhere else in the world, including the world's most endangered duck, the Laysan duck. Although land areas are very limited in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at less than six square miles, the relatively shallow underwater habitats (0 – 600 feet below the surface) are extensive. Many of these habitats are submerged features known as seamounts, which are formed from undersea volcanoes, but never reached the ocean's surface.

casper octopus

While exploring at depths of over 4,000 meters northeast of Necker Island in the Hawaiian Archipelago, Deep Discoverer encountered this ghostlike octopod, which is almost certainly an undescribed species and may not belong to any described genus. Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

In all, a quarter of the creatures living in the monument are found nowhere else. Many more have not yet been identified—such as a ghostly little white octopus, recently discovered, that scientists have dubbed Casper.

glass sponge

This glass sponge was imaged on an unnamed seamount just outside the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

A sacred place in the history and cosmology of Native Hawaiian people, where life originates and where ancestors return after death, Papahänaumokuäkea is also an essential training ground for traditional and contemporary Hawaiian wayfinders (non-instrument navigators).

midway atoll

In 2000 Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge was designated the Battle of Midway National Memorial, so that the heroic courage and sacrifice of those who fought against overwhelming odds to win an incredible victory will never be forgotten. Photo and text credit: US Fish & Wildlife Services

The Monument also includes Midway Island (or, Midway Atoll), the site of the Battle of Midway, which was fought between June 4 and 6, 1942, and is considered one of the most decisive naval battles of World War II, where the US defeated a Japanese battle group, marking a turning point in the war in the Pacific theater.

When the PMNM was expanded by Presidential proclamation on August 26, 2016, the new boundaries of this marine protected area included the deep waters 200-300 miles north of Midway Atoll where the sites associated with the historic Battle of Midway rest far beneath the surface. In all, 2,500 Japanese and 307 Americans were killed in the battle.

Midway is now a mix of boarded-up buildings left over from the island's military heyday and freshly painted facilities still in use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, there are approximately 40-60 people who call Midway home, including FWS employees, utility contractors, and volunteers, though once there were more than 5000 residents. All visitation to the island is granted on a permit basis, but sadly, due to budget restrictions and its remote nature, visiting the island or the Battle of Midway National Memorial is not currently possible for tourists. Though the PMNM monument status should ensure that the protection of the Battle of Midway historical site be considered a national priority, FWS is not granted the funding nor the resources to manage this, and many of the island’s historical buildings have been neglected to a state of severe disrepair, or demolished because of safety concerns regarding the albatross that share the island.

Monument Status

The diverse ecosystem contained within the monument is home to many species of coral, fish, birds, marine mammals, and other flora and fauna including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the threatened green sea turtle, and the endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles. Monument status ensures that the unique ecological, historical, scientific, educational and cultural resources contained within remain a national priority for protection and research. Monument designation also provides international, national, and local recognition of an area of special significance. (Courtesy NOAA)

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine January/February 2018 issue.

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