Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Coral and Ulua found in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo Credit: NOAA

Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument encompasses the ten small islands and atolls that are known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), one of the most remote and geographically isolated places in U.S. waters. While total area of land within the monument is only about 8 square kilometers, it covers over 1,500,000 square kilometers of biologically valuable ocean. That’s almost four times the size of California! And with the exception of some government staff living on Midway Atoll, the islands are uninhabited, giving free reign to the multitudes of animals that live there. And multitudes they certainly are – over 7,000 different species of marine animals call these waters home. In the 2016 Proclamation that expanded the size of the monument, President Barack Obama described the NWHI as “some of the most unique and diverse ecological communities on the planet.” Incredibly, about 1,700 of the species there are endemic to Hawaii, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. One of those species is the endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi).

A Hawaiian monk seal pup rests at Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument. Photo Credit: Mark Sullivan

Native Hawaiians call it ‘ilioholoikauaua, which means “dog that runs in rough water,” and the English name references the animal’s characteristic skin folds that resemble a monk’s cowl. Once a common species around Hawaiian coral reefs, there are now only about 1,400 of these seals left. Before their habitat was protected by law, they were often hunted for their meat and fur, or caught accidentally by fishermen looking for reef fish. These days, one of their biggest threats is marine debris, mainly plastics, which they can ingest or become tangled in. The Hawaiian Monk Seal is only one of 22 different endangered species you can find at Papahānaumokuākea, including sea turtles, birds, and whales. The shallow coral reefs, deep-water banks, and steep sea mounts of the NWHI provide critical, near-pristine habitat for species that might otherwise be on the way to extinction. Plus, the monument’s geographic isolation means it isn’t impacted as highly by human threats, like pollution or habitat destruction.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument protects coral reefs rich with marine species. Photo Credit: NOAA

To protect these natural wonders, managers have enacted strong regulations within the monument. The inner section of the park, which was originally designated by President George W. Bush in 2006, covers about 24% of the total protected area and has a strict no-take policy. The outer section of the park was added in 2016, and some limited activities like scientific research, Native Hawaiian practices and other non-commercial uses are allowed there by permit. This outer, limited-use area acts as a huge buffer for the inner, no-take area, giving it even greater protection. The monument is also co-managed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Sharing responsibility for management often leads to more diverse perspectives that in turn lead to more comprehensive management.

Because Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is a great example of a marine protected area that strongly protects a valuable ocean ecosystem, it was nominated for and awarded Global Ocean Refuge status this year. The Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) welcomes Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to its network of well-protected marine areas contributing to biodiversity conservation. GLORES works to protect ocean ecosystems by promoting Marine Protected Areas with strong regulations safeguarding their unique marine environments.

GLORES is an initiative of Marine Conservation Institute designed to create a global network of effectively protected marine areas to safeguard marine biodiversity. Joining Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Global Ocean Refuge System in 2017 are Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary.

For more information on Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, please visit:

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Official Site

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument GLORES Evaluation Report

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on MPAtas.org