Obama Creates World’s Largest Marine Preserve in Hawaii

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Happy fish.Photo: ullstein bild

Yesterday President Obama announced the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in western Hawaii by more than 442,778 miles, quadrupling its size and creating the largest marine preserve on earth.

The president will announce the new designation on Wednesday in Hawaii at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress. The idea for the expansion was originally floated over the summer by Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, at the urging of a group of influential native Hawaiians.

The move is seen as a boon for conservationists and was championed by many Hawaiians, but it’s not without its detractors.

For the most part, Hawaiians seem pleased with Obama’s decision. Under the new regulations, traditional fishing and other indigenous practices will be allowed to continue in Papahānaumokuākea with a permit but all commercial fishing will be forbidden. Most significant, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a public body with an elected board that works for the interests of native Hawaiians, will become a co-trustee of the preserve, giving Hawaiians a voice in the management of their land.

While Senator Schatz claims that a large preserve would allow fish stocks to replenish, making fishing viable for future generations, other prominent Hawaiians, among them Hawaii House speaker Joe Souki, fear that the massive swath of protected ocean would adversely affect the island state’s vital fishing industry, especially fisheries’ ability to bag lucrative bigeye tuna.

Critics of the president’s decision also questioned his authority to create the monument. Obama invoked the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows him to create new “national monuments,” effectively using his executive authority to designate great swaths of land as protected without having to get the congressional approval necessary to inaugurate a true national park. And, it appears Obama — no stranger to finding new ways of leveraging his executive authority — has become quite fond of the act. Just last week, the president established another “national monument” in Maine, creating the 90,000 acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from a parcel of land donated by Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby.

Earlier in the year, Obama used the same law to create the world’s second-largest desert preserve in Southern California; he has also designated similar national monuments in California, Texas, and Nevada.

Questions of overreach aside, the new preserves do seem a fitting way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service this Thursday.