Fact Sheet

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Expanding protections to conserve Hawaiian culture and biodiversity

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Cover Art

This fact sheet was updated in July 2016 to correct the map.


Papahānaumokuākea means “a sacred area from which all life springs” and is the Hawaiian name for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. To Hawaiians, Papahānaumokuākea is a place of honor, believed to be the root of native ancestral connections to the gods, and the site to which spirits return after death. The islands and the water around them are home to more than 7,000 species, a quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

At the time of its creation in 2006, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was, at 140,000 square miles (363,000 square kilometers), the largest fully protected marine park in the world. Its designation marked the first time a protected area of such significance had been established in the ocean.

Papahānaumokuākea helped inspire an international movement to safeguard large swaths of ocean and create the world’s first generation of great parks in the sea. Establishment of the U.S. monument, which received bipartisan support, was followed by the designation of more than a dozen large-scale marine protected areas around the world, nine of them larger than this initial effort. As a result, close to 2 percent of the world’s oceans are set aside with strong protections. This is important progress, but scientists recommend protection of at least 30 percent.1

Expanding Papahānaumokuākea would help ensure the long-term health of this vital marine ecosystem and the species that rely on it while also protecting ecosystems farther offshore. It would build resiliency against the effects of climate change and improve food security for Hawaiians.2

Enlarging the monument to the limits of the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—a fivefold increase—would include more pelagic waters, offshore seamounts, and other deep-sea habitats to create what could be the world’s largest protected area on land or sea. Taking this action would make a significant contribution toward global conservation targets and help Native Hawaiians preserve traditional practices and ways of life.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Conserving Hawaiian culture

Ever since their ancestors voyaged across the Pacific Ocean to reach these islands, Native Hawaiians have developed complex natural resource management systems and specialized skills to survive on remote islands with limited resources. They continue to maintain strong cultural ties to the land and sea and believe in the importance of managing the islands and waters as inextricably connected to one another. Native Hawaiians believe it is their responsibility to care for what feeds them, a principle known as Aloha ‘āina.

Much of what is known about the area surrounding Papahānaumokuākea has been passed down in oral and written histories, genealogies, songs, dances, and archaeological finds. Through these sources, Native Hawaiians are able to recount how their seafaring ancestors traveled hundreds of miles between the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the main Hawaiian Islands.

In recent decades, there has been a renaissance of Hawaiian culture, exemplified by the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, in which traditional canoes, the Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia, are circumnavigating the globe. The voyage, whose Hawaiian name, Mālama Honua, means “to care for our Earth,” began in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and will end in 2017. Society members describe the trip as a call to protect cultural and environmental resources for future generations.

Protecting biodiversity

An expansion of the monument would protect key ecosystems made up of coral reefs, seamounts, pelagic zones, and communities of organisms that range from microscopic phytoplankton and zooplankton to seabirds, large tuna, sharks, sea turtles, and marine mammals. It would strengthen the health of the surrounding Pacific by protecting biodiversity. And the spillover effect that comes with large fully protected areas would encourage thriving populations of fish to move into nearby waters beyond the reserve’s boundaries.

Above the waterline

One of the largest groupings of tropical seabirds in the world makes its home in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. That includes 14 million birds from 22 species, 5.5 million of which breed in the areas annually. Eleven are considered imperiled or of high conservation concern.

The existing monument provides for the protection of vital reproductive, nesting, and nurturing sites essential to the longevity of bird species that inhabit the islands in and around its borders. The expansion would protect important foraging habitat. For example, more than 98 percent of the world’s Laysan albatrosses nest on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands chain. Their foraging habitat includes most of the North Pacific, but their range is significantly reduced to the area of the proposed boundaries when the birds are feeding chicks.

Pelagic resources

Expanding Papahānaumokuākea protections out to the full extent of the EEZ, excluding the islands of Ni’ihau and Kaua’i, would benefit populations of sharks, tuna, and sea turtles—including the threatened Hawaiian green turtle—as well as marine mammals like endangered blue, humpback, and false killer whales.

Deep-sea life

The deep sea is home to remarkably rich coral systems. While more is known about shallow coral ecosystems, it is now thought that there are more coral species living at great ocean depths than in tropical shallows.3 These ancient corals, some 4,000 years old, create ornate, forestlike structures that would need hundreds of years to recover if disturbed by fishing activities such as bottom trawling.4 Other unknown areas of the ocean, such as underwater mountains (seamounts), can contain a wealth of marine organisms that would be threatened and susceptible to extractive activities, such as deep-sea mining or bottom trawling, if not included in a marine reserve.

Most of the world’s seamounts are virtually unexplored. They support biodiversity-rich communities that are poorly understood. Still, scientists estimate that as many as 10 million species inhabit the deep sea, biodiversity comparable to the world’s richest tropical rain forests. The proposed expansion of the monument would lead to the protection of about 110 additional seamounts.

Strengthening ocean resilience to climate change

Marine reserves help bolster food security and climate resilience. Highly protected areas that safeguard species and ecosystem functions have proved to be six times more resilient than unprotected areas to the impact of climate change.5 Reserves of sufficient size support the ocean’s ability to combat, and recover from, climate change, acidification, and sea level rise. Additionally, by keeping marine life protected and in the water, these reserves boost the ocean’s effectiveness as a biological pump in the carbon cycle. Protection aids in the recovery and sustainability of biodiversity not only in the shallower waters around coral reefs but also in the deeper ocean. And that could protect unknown or more recently discovered species around the benthic, or deep-sea, communities and seamounts.

Enhancing monitoring and enforcement to stop poaching

Enforcement experts say that the ability to conduct monitoring and surveillance activities is enhanced by prohibiting all extractive and destructive activities within a defined area. When an area is declared off-limits to fishing, the rules are clear and monitoring becomes easier: Enforcement is no longer focused on identifying which species a vessel is targeting or which types of gear are being used, but rather on any vessels in a nonfishing zone. Satellite and other tracking technologies, such as Project Eyes on the Seas’ Virtual Watch Room, help with this task. Pew has partnered with Satellite Applications Catapult to create this cutting-edge technology that merges satellite tracking and imagery data with other sources of information, such as fishing vessel databases and oceanographic data, to help monitor waters around the globe.

Impacts on the Hawaii fishing fleet

Expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument would have no negative effect on fishermen’s catch as the area proposed for expansion by Hawaiians is not a major fishing ground, according to publicly available data.6 Currently, 95 percent of longline fishing based in Hawaii takes place outside the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.7 About 70 percent of this catch has historically been caught entirely outside the U.S. EEZ.

There may be some costs for fishermen associated with the closure, most likely stemming from an increase in fuel use as vessels travel farther. But low oil prices combined with the fleet’s preference for these more distant fishing grounds indicate that increased costs would probably be negligible. The wider Hawaiian fishing industry—including wholesalers, retailers, fish cutters, equipment operators, and provisioners—would be unaffected by the proposed expansion.


President Barack Obama has the opportunity to set a new global standard for marine protection by using his authority under the Antiquities Act to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to include habitats and ecosystems beyond the monument’s current borders. The waters that would be added contain considerable cultural and scientific value, from threatened species with long links to Hawaiian communities to the unprotected remains of the Battle of Midway, the critical World War II naval fight between the U.S. and Japanese navies.

The area provides critical foraging habitat for 22 species of seabirds, 22 species of whales, at least a dozen species of sharks, four commercially important species of tuna, five species of endangered sea turtles, and monk seals. In addition, the bottom of the sea holds staggering amounts of undiscovered life, while some 110 seamounts await exploration.

An expansion of Papahānaumokuākea to protect more of its biodiversity and to preserve its scenic and cultural value could again position this area as the world’s largest marine reserve. Such large protected areas are a key tool to ensure a legacy of marine resources for future generations.


  1. Bethan O’Leary et al., “Effective Coverage Targets for Ocean Protection,” Conservation Letters (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/conl.12247.
  2. Sarah E. Lester et al., “Biological Effects Within No-Take Marine Reserves: A Global Synthesis,” Marine Ecology Progress Series 384 (2009): 33–46, http://dx.doi.org/10.3354/meps08029.
  3. S. Elizabeth Lumsden et al., eds., The State of Deep Coral Ecosystems of the United States: 2007, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA Technical Memorandum CRCP-3, http://www.coris.noaa.gov/activities/deepcoral_rpt/DeepCoralRpt2007.pdf.
  4. E. Brendan Roark et al., “Extreme Longevity in Proteinaceous Deep-Sea Corals,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 13 (2009): 5204–08, http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0810875106.
  5. Peter J. Mumby et al., “Operationalizing the Resilience of Coral Reefs in an Era of Climate Change,” Conservation Letters 7, no. 3 (2014): 176-87, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/conl.12047.
  6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hawaii Longline Logbook Summary Reports, Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center (January–December 2014, 2013, and 2012), http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/fmb/reports.php.
  7. Ibid.

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