Obamacare Mk.II: US President sanctions world’s largest ever ecologically protected zone

President Obama has just celebrated the centenary of the US National Park Service (NPS) by massively expanding a national marine monument in Hawaii, where he was born.

The newly super-sized Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument now sprawls across 582,578 square miles of blue ocean around the uninhabited northwestern islands of Hawaii, making it officially the planet’s largest ecologically protected patch.

The announcement of Obama’s intentions came on Friday, and the president spoke about his action in an address to the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders and the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, yesterday, before hopping on a plane to visit Midway Atoll, which is located within the current monument.

Obama invoked the 1906 Antiquities Act to safeguard the area, and in doing so brought the running total of lands protected during his tenure to 548 million acres–over twice the amount of any of his predecessors. The US president has demonstrated a particular concern for the environment and climate change during his second term, and the protection of small islands and their populations has been a common theme.

‘It is in the public interest to preserve the marine environment,’ Obama said when announcing the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea. And then, whilst addressing leaders of island nations in Honolulu on Wednesday, the president urged countries big and small to unite behind a common effort on climate challenges and to ‘row as one’, saying that no nation can tackle the issue itself.

‘When it comes to climate change, there’s a dire possibility of us getting off-course, and we can’t allow that to happen,’ he said, in a subtle sideswipe directed at the climate change-denying Republican candidate in the upcoming US election, Donald Trump.

Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most critically endangered marine mammals on the planet
Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most critically endangered marine mammals on the planet

The upsizing of Papahānaumokuākea caused some concern for local longline fishermen, but has been warmly welcomed by environmentalists and climate scientists. Hawaii is a biologically rich region and is considered an area of pivotal importance in the struggle between commercial interests and environmental concern, after important deep-water discoveries in the region sparked debates about the dual threats of climate change and sea-bed mining.

‘The oceans are the untold story when it comes to climate change, and we have to feel a sense of urgency when it comes to protecting the ocean that sustains us,’ said local Senator Brian Schatz, who helped broker a compromise with groups including Native Hawaiians and day-boat fishermen.

Within the boundaries of the national monument, all commercial extraction activities–including fishing and future deep-sea mining–are prohibited, while recreational fishing and the removal of resources for traditional Hawaiian cultural purposes and scientific research will still be allowed (with a federal permit).

Hawaii, an archipelago of eight major islands and a scattering of atolls and seamounts, is the world’s most important seabird gathering site, attracting over 14 million birds from 22 species. It’s also home to the planet’s oldest living animal (a recently discovered black coral estimated to have been around the sun 4,500 times) the entire global population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and nearly all Laysan albatrosses.

Deepwater research expeditions last year employed remotely operated vehicles to unearth several extraordinary features in the region, including the ancient coral and six massive seamounts, one around 450 metres high and teeming with life.

‘We’re seeing a lot of life, a lot of new life and a lot of very old life,’ said Daniel Wagner, researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and lead researcher on the expedition. ‘Things have not been disturbed for a very long time.’

However, Wagner went on to express serious concern about the potential of future underwater mineral extraction harming the region, given the rich deposits of manganese, nickel, zinc, cobalt and titanium that have been detected there.

Matt Rand, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program, shared his worries, saying that intact ecosystems such as the one found in Hawaii, ‘offer a glimpse of what our planet was like before the impacts of human activity, and it is critical that we preserve places in this way, both as a window to the past and for future generations.’

Fortunately, that protection they were seeking for the area has now been enshrined.

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