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Public comment for designating Pacific Remote Islands a National Marine Sanctuary ends June 2

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Acropora corals grow toward the sunlight to form beautiful, massive tables at Palmyra Atoll. Credit: Jeff Milisen/NOAA

A new National Marine Sanctuary designation is under consideration for all U.S. waters around the Pacific Remote Islands, which are southwest of Hawai’i.

June 2 is the last day to provide testimony in the first step of a six-step process.

The proposed new designation would conserve 777,000 square miles of ocean, which includes the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and currently unprotected submerged lands and waters. It would extend to the full limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone (200 nautical miles) around Howland and Baker Islands, Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll.

It would be one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. Currently the largest protected area is the Ross Sea Region around Antarctica.

Proposed Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: NOAA

Andy Collins, education coordinator at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and manager of the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo, said if the new designation goes through, it will make it harder to reverse protections for the Pacific Remote Islands.


“Monuments have been removed, but sanctuaries have not,” he said.

Sanctuaries also promote more public engagement.

Marine portions of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument also are in the process of being considered for National Marine Sanctuary status. Public testimony already has been gathered. Now, this proposed designation is in the second phase of reviewing the comments and creating a draft document.

The Pacific Remote Islands Coalition has been advocating for protection of these islands and atolls for nearly a decade.

In March, the group submitted the nomination for the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary to President Joe Biden.


At the White House Conservation in Action Summit in March, Biden directed the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to consider initiating a new National Marine Sanctuary designation within the next 30 days for the Pacific Remote Islands. It is part of his goal of conserving at least 30% of ocean waters under American jurisdiction by 2030.

The proposed conservation marine area is home to some of the most diverse species and creatures on the planet. They include corals, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, seabirds, land birds, insects and vegetation not found anywhere else in the world. Many threatened, endangered and depleted species live there, from the green and hawksbill turtles and pearl oysters, to Napoleon wrasses, bumphead parrotfish and whales, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Local residents speak up about the proposed sanctuary designation at the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center on May 11, 2023. (Megan Moseley/Big Island Now)

Collins said NOAA has held public meetings all around the Pacific this past month, including at the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo on May 11. They also were held in Honolulu, Saipan, Guam, American Samoa, Rota and Tinian.

Collins said the efforts are helping to protect these habitats, which are vulnerable to impacts from climate change, invasive species and marine debris.

If the designation is accepted, the atolls, shoals, banks, reefs, seamounts and open-ocean waters surrounding the Pacific Remote Islands also will have more protection from human impacts, including deep sea mining and overfishing.


And that’s important because reefs around Hawaiʻi are dying.

Hawai’i’s coral reefs are experiencing bleaching events resulting in up to 50% of the reef dying in some locations, due to temperature effects from climate change, and the other threats such as increased coastal development, over tourism and water and sewage runoff, according to the Hawaiʻi State Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The Pacific Remote Islands area also is ancient. The Johnston Atoll is one of the oldest in the Pacific Ocean, and the Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef are remnants of volcanoes from 65 to 120 million years ago. Kingman is the most undisturbed coral reef within the United States and the Palmyra Atoll is home to one of the largest red-footed booby colonies in the world and the largest black noddy colony in the Central Pacific. 

Biden also is directing the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce to conduct a public process to work with regional Indigenous cultural leaders to appropriately rename the existing Pacific Remote Islands National Monument, and potentially the islands themselves, to honor the area’s heritage, ancestral pathways and stopping points for Pacific Island voyagers.

He also wants to provide posthumous recognition for young Native Hawaiian men sent to secure U.S. territorial claim to the islands in the run up to World War II.

To learn more about the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition, visit www.protectpri.com.

Kalani Quiocho, Cultural Resources Coordinator for NOAAʻs Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Pacific Region, helps to oversee public testimony at the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center on May 11, 2023. (Megan Moseley/Big Island Now)

Megan Moseley
Megan Moseley is a multi-platform journalist based in Hawaiʻi. Her experience ranges from long and short-form reporting to print, digital, radio and television news coverage. In Hawaiʻi, she's worked for local media outlets and has covered a wide range of topics including local and state politics, environmental affairs, Native Hawaiian issues, travel, tourism and education. She covers the West for Restaurant Hospitality.

She's a 2010 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Magazine Journalism and specializations in Geology and History. She's currently working on her master's degree from New York University in journalism and is focused on conflict resolution and peace practices in indigenous cultures in the Pacific.

Find her @meganmoseleyjournalist or at www.meganmoseley.com.
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