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Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument



To mark the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Barack Obama vastly expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was originally created by George W. Bush to claim he had done something for conservation. This is now the largest piece of conserved territory on the planet, now over 582,000 square miles of ocean.

Papahānaumokuākea is a sanctuary for endangered species, including blue whales, short-tailed albatrosses, sea turtles, and the last Hawaiian monk seals. It contains some of the world’s northernmost and healthiest coral reefs, considered among the most likely to survive in an ocean warmed by climate change. The seamounts and sunken islands of its deeper waters are inhabited by more than 7,000 species, including the oldest animals on Earth—black corals that have lived for more than 4,000 years.

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.

It’s certainly true that it’s politically easier to create an oceanic monument (although awfully hard to police I’d guess so I’m curious how successful keeping big commercial fishing boats out of there will be) than a land monument. And thus it’s basically impossible to visit, although a visit to Midway could be pretty cool for the war stuff. But that’s OK. As the oceans change rapidly between climate change and overfishing, keeping some parts of it as pristine as possible is certainly a good thing. Of course, even at 582,000 square miles, many fish will swim right out of them.

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, said Obama’s announcement buoys hope that the United States can lead the way to a global network of marine-protected areas large enough to save and restore the oceans. These “blue parks,” as Earle calls them, “are not a luxury – a place to go and have a good time,” she said. “Resilience to climate change is dependent upon having significant areas of natural protection—for biodiversity and for all the things that hold the planet steady. This is vitally important to protect our life-support system.”

I guess I’m a bit skeptical about this globally because of a) resources to police fishing over vast areas and b) the impact of climate change and ocean acidification to wipe out most species. But why not try? It’s certainly a good idea if nothing else.

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  • (although awfully hard to police I’d guess so I’m curious how successful keeping big commercial fishing boats out of there will be)

    Perhaps Farley could come up with something?

    • I was thinking submarines but maybe a battleship for the visible deterrent effect.

      • Bootsie

        Just a ring of battleships, all welded together into the Great Wall of Nature Conservation.

    • sean_p

      In all seriousness: this would actually be quite easy to patrol… with an airplane. I’m not sure of the exact shape of the monument, but if it were square it would be around 760 miles on a side. A USCG patrol airplane equipped with a decent radar would be able to detect and investigate contacts with ease, and cue a cutter to go intercept any lawbreakers.

      • sean_p

        Ok, checked out the website. Yeah, this is relatively easy. There’s a USCG air station at Barber’s Point from which you could launch, and I believe the airfield at Midway is still open. The HC-144 has sufficient range to cover this (not sure what sensors it has onboard), or they could borrow P-3s from the Navy.

  • DAS

    “Obama’s announcement buoys hope”? “Buoys”? When talking about a marine sanctuary?

    There’s a person who knows her target audience is pun-making readers of liberal blogs!

    Good on Obama, though. My hopes are buoyed! But yep … How to enforce this is a huge question. I also wonder about the inverse question to how to keep poachers out: how do we keep mobile creatures in the sanctuary where they are protected? Perhaps Trump could build a wall?

    • sean_p

      I noticed that as well, and laughed!

    • sean_p

      Oh, and re: enforcement: easy task with surveillance aircraft, which both the USCG and Navy have in abundance.

  • West

    Would all the new drone technology make this at least relatively cheaper to patrol than with ships? Perhaps much cheaper? Fly the drones out of Midway and the northwestern-most of the main islands. Once you’ve photographed and identified an offender, THEN you dispatch the Coast Guard.

    • i8kraft

      I was thinking something with satellite GPS, but I have no idea how feasible this would be.

    • delazeur

      There is a nonprofit that uses satellite images to identify vessels moving in a pattern consistent with fishing and dispatches local law enforcement if the vessels are in an area where fishing is prohibited.

      • West

        That’s good to know, thanks!

    • David Allan Poe

      Depending on the fishery, most of the larger fishing boats are required to use Vessel Monitoring Systems. These track movement at all time and can be monitored at will by regulators. I only worked on one boat that had one, and its been a few years, but the technology is straightforward. You can’t turn it off, though I’m sure draggers can figure out some way to disable it if they want to.

      • delazeur

        I understand that it’s fairly common for marine poachers to simply not have those systems. They register with a country that doesn’t require them, try to stick to international waters, and when they get caught they just outrun the law enforcement boats.

        • David Allan Poe

          Maybe. That might be true on a small scale, closer to shore. The middle of the Pacific is a different proposition. The overfishing threat is overwhelmingly from boats doing perfectly legal things.

          • nosmo king

            This is true. When I was growing up in Hawaii, the collapse of the sugar industry meant a lot of people bought whatever boat they could afford and became full time fishermen for food and extra money. They cleaned out most of the better eating fish along the west coast of the Big Island pretty well for a while. IIRC new regulations, rising fuel prices and a move into the boom side of the boom and bust economy put a (temporary/) halt to the local overfishing.

          • delazeur

            It’s less of an issue with overfishing and more of an issue with boats going into marine sanctuaries to fish.

            • David Allan Poe

              Right, but my point is that any boat big enough to profitably fish a remote area like that is probably going to have VMS as part of their required equipment to fish at all. Or they’re a foreign boat illegally encroaching on the US EEZ. Nobody based in Hawai’i is going out there with a pirate 250 foot dragger to bring in half a million pounds of illegal fish. There’d be nowhere to sell it.

              I know essentially nothing about the Hawaiian commercial fisheries, but in Alaska people get popped pretty easily for fishing in closed areas, catching fish in one area and claiming it’s from another, and even cutting too closely through sea lion exclusion zones while they’re just driving. Enough that it actually does deter a lot of skippers from pushing too far. The real problem is, and always will be, what the really big dragger catcher-processors are able to do without any worries at all.

              • delazeur

                The boats that do this don’t usually do it in U.S. waters, because USCG is more effective than most East Asian and Polynesian law enforcement.

    • sean_p

      Global Hawk would be a good choice for this, but I’m not sure how available they’d be for a task like this. But both the USCG and Navy have a bunch of manned surveillance aircraft that could do the job. Ships would probably only be useful as intercept vessels: they can’t see far enough to patrol an area that big. But they could certainly be cued by air assets.

  • I would have thought that a huge marine conservation area is easier to police than a small one. The excuse “sorry guv, I’d no idea we were inside the zone, the GPS said we were OK” is plausible if you are a mile inside, less so if it’s 20.

    Also, drones.

    Britain has an utterly feeble policy on marine conservation areas. Fortunately it also has a very gung-ho one on offshore wind farms. Once the initial disturbance from construction is over, these become de facto seabed conservation zones because trawling would damage the cables. Offshore wind is only for big companies, with leverage to protect their investment. The same will happen off the US Atlantic coast.

  • Vance Maverick

    Sylvia Earle apparently holds the title of “explorer-in-residence”, kind of like subordinate-in-chief or criminal-in-law.

    • rea

      I have some criminal in-laws . . .

  • MobiusKlein

    Fish swimming out of the area is actually one of the benefits! A refuge can be an anchor to a larger thriving ecosystem.

    • It can if the fishing boats allow anything to stay alive.

  • Brautigan

    Here in Florida, at least, the sanctuaries are generally pretty effective, just because the penalties are so large. Small-time poachers are afraid of the jail time, and big-time operators have too much investment at stake (large-scale fishing operations are hugely capital-intensive).

    • Poacher-fed shark meat is a great delicacy in China, so I’m told.

  • Gareth

    To mark the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Barack Obama vastly expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was originally created by George W. Bush to claim he had done something for conservation.


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