Courtesy James Watt/Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
Colorful reef fish, like pennantfish, pyramid and milletseed butterflyfish, school in great numbers at Rapture Reef, French Frigate Shoals in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Nature, Culture, and Plastic: Obama Quadruples Marine National Monument

Steve Russell

President Barack Obama has signed an executive order expanding a Marine National Monument containing sites with great significance to Native Hawaiians.  Papahānaumokuākea is also a World Heritage Site designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which means it could be designated for natural significance or cultural significance or a mixture of the two.

Because so much of Papahānaumokuākea is under water, the significance would seem obviously natural—miles of endangered coral reef and habitat for over 7,000 animal species. However, UNESCO designates Papahānaumokuākea as being of cultural as well as natural significance to the world. It includes the island of Makumanamana, with the highest density of sacred sites in the entire Hawaiian Archipelago. Archaeologists date human settlement to 1,000 C.E. UNESCO found:

The area has deep cosmological and traditional significance for living Native Hawaiian culture, as an ancestral environment, as an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world, and as the place where it is believed that life originates and to where the spirits return after death. On two of the islands, Nihoa and Makumanamana, there are archaeological remains relating to pre-European settlement and use.

At the stroke of a pen, Obama quadrupled the size of the area the U.S. will protect as a Marine National Monument, rendering it almost as large as the Gulf of Mexico. The original protected area, established by President George W. Bush in 2006, already took in an area larger than all of the National Park System.

When Obama traveled to his home state of Hawaii to make the announcement, he illustrated the incidental inclusion of a place of historical significance when Air Force One landed on Midway Atoll, site of the Battle of Midway National Memorial.

This tiny spit of land, known to Native Hawaiians as Pihemanu Kauihelani, became a pivot point of World War II. First, it was a coaling station, but the Japanese wanted it for the same reason the U.S. did, a “midway” observation post that was supposed to avoid surprises like Pearl Harbor.

When Obama landed for his press event, the entire population of the atoll, some 50 persons, greeted him. His press pool pumped up that crowd by at least half, but he made his remarks to very few people on public land that normally gets less than 500 visitors a year:

I look forward to knowing that 20 years from now, 40 years from now, 100 years from now this is a place where people can still come to and see what a place like this looks like when it’s not overcrowded or destroyed by human populations…

The CNN report on Obama’s visit claimed that 1.5 million Laysan albatross nest on the island—over 99 percent of the population known to exist in the world. The Cornell University Ornithology Lab dedicates one of their bird cams to the albatross during nesting season.

The birds bring five tons of plastic per year to Midway and that accidental trash haul demonstrates the primary threat the National Park Service sees to Papahānaumokuākea: “marine debris.” Obama’s designation will protect this vast natural area in the Pacific from overfishing and from undersea mining but that does not solve the problem that we call on dry land littering.

Only the prevailing currents keep the protected area from becoming part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic from the garbage patch kills birds and some marine life. When animals ingest plastics but do not die, the chemicals are introduced into the food chain to eventually poison the species at the top that produced the poison in the first place, H. sapiens.

Obama’s pen may have protected endangered coral reefs and Native Hawaiian sacred sites. Now if it could just protect us from ourselves.

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