One year is a drop in the bucket for the habitat that houses more than 7,000 aquatic species — but it’s a milestone for the world’s largest marine conservation area nationally.
Stretching 1,200 miles across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument encompasses 137,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, boasting unadulterated water environments that are important habitats for rare species such as the threatened green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
The monument, managed with state and federal cooperation, protects 140,000 square miles of cultural and historic resources, coral reefs and native species including endangered monk seals, threatened green sea turtles and rare seabirds.
Officials with its three co-trustees — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Hawai‘i Department of Natural Resources — have spent the past year educating the community, establishing joint regulations, researching the area and coining its name.
Stemming from a Hawaiian genealogy tradition, “Papahanaumokuakea” is a combination of Hawaiian words tracing the birthplace of the archipelago and is a tribute to Native Hawaiians’ ancestral connection with the gods who created it.
Papahanaumokuakea is a mother figure personified by the Earth. Wakea is a father figure personified in the expansive sky. The union of these ancestors created — or birthed — the islands, according to Kekuewa Kikiloi, Native Hawaiian cultural program coordinator for the monument.
First Lady Laura Bush on March 2 announced Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as the new name.
The area is home to 22 species of seabirds, she said, including the largest nesting colony of albatross in the world.
Visitors — on a limited basis — will soon be able to experience the monument at Midway Atoll, said Barbara Maxfield, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
An interim visitor services plan for Midway Atoll was completed last month and will be late this year or early 2008.
“It’s a small-scale program, allowing no more than 30 or so visitors at a time,” Maxfield said. “It will give people an opportunity to actually experience and learn about the monument and Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.”
The co-trustees plan to research how nesting colonies protected in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands may benefit local populations of endangered species in Kaua‘i, for instance, the closest main Hawaiian Island to the monument other than Ni‘ihau.
“There are inter-connectivity issues among migration species. For instance, 90 percent of Hawaiian monk seals nest in the midst of the monument,” Maxfield said. “If we protect those nesting grounds. …It’s certainly a wonderful opportunity to protect a lot of native species that are facing major challenges here in the main Hawaiian Islands.”
Public outreach efforts started in fall 2006 throughout the main Hawaiian Islands, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Constituent Outreach and Development Associate Keeley Belva said.
“We have conducted several school visits (and) attended outreach events such as Kaua‘i Ocean Fair at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge,” she said. “The public’s response has been generally supportive and interested in our efforts.”
President Bush’s proclamation establishing the monument, signed June 15, 2006, prohibits commercial activities except with a permit. It also will completely phase out commercial fishing by 2011.
With the intent of increasing efficiency for permit applicants, the co-trustees created a single permit for access to the monument, Belva said.
A draft plan to provide overall direction for the monument, including how to manage all the pieces of its ecosystems, is scheduled to be released for public review and comment in early 2008.
“It will be a guiding document for all of us to use in the coming five years,” Maxfield said.
To sign up for the monument listserve, go to www.hawaiireef.noaa.gov.
For more information, visit www.fws.gov/pacificislands.
• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or firstname.lastname@example.org.