Sunday, February 5, 2017

I Love It When You Call Me Big Papa

Whether you love him, hate him, or don't care either way; Barack Obama's presidency ended on January 20th. While the 44th president has had a rough time forming a lasting legacy on many fronts; he's proven himself to be the public lands president. Since taking office in 2009 Obama has set aside more land, and even more relevant to Depth and Taxa, ocean than any president in history.

Obama is basically that kid in school who trashed
the curve for everyone else.
Graph based on National Park Service Data

There's a number of ways that land and sea can protected from exploitation in the US. Areas can be set aside as National Parks; which basically prevents them from use other than research and outdoor recreation. Lands can be established as National Forest; which has a conservation aspect but also allows for some extraction of resources. However both of these designations require action by Congress. Action is not something the 114th Congress was famous for. So if a president believes the people that elected him want lands protected, but can't get congress to do anything, how does he go about it? Enter the Antiquities Act.

In the final years of the 19th century Americans were concerned about the rampant destruction of archaeological sites and ecosystems across the country. In response, Congress created the Antiquities Act to allow important cultural, historical, and scientific places to be protected as National Monuments; without the delay that comes from congressional deliberation. Unsurprisingly, Teddy Roosevelt used the act to set aside more acreage than any president until his fifth-cousin took the job in 1933.

"Hahahaha, just try and outdo me little Frankie. I'm the only 
president  this century that everyone liked." -Teddy Roosevelt

You might expect that Democratic presidents are more likely to use the antiquities act, but the exact same number of Democrats and Republicans have established or enlarged National Monuments. In fact, one of the largest ever national monuments was established by the number two acreage protector, none other than George W. Bush! The Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced: papa-ha-now-mo-ku-ah-kay-ah) National Monument was established in 2006 by president Bush and expanded by over 400,000 square miles in 2016 by president Obama.

Papahānaumokuākea (Or for Notorious B.I.G. fans: Big Papa) hits every mark for the intent of the Antiquities Act. It has important historical sites; like Midway Atoll where the Allies scored a major naval victory in World War II. Culturally important places to indigenous Hawaiians. The northwest islands in the monument are believed to be where spirits are born and return to after death. And major ecologically and scientifically important ecosystems. Shallow and deep water stony coral reefs, breeding grounds for endangered species, islands full of endemic plants and animals, and a sea mount as high as Mount Rainier are all found inside the monument.

If we place Papahānaumokuākea on top of the US it's as long as Idaho to Indiana
and as wide as Montana to central Utah.
Image Courtesy; NOAA

Not only does Papahānaumokuākea represent the ideal of what a national monument should be; the restriction it puts on commercial fishing, but not recreational fishing, comes at an essential time in the health of the ocean. There's a growing consensus that about 30% of the world's seas needs to protected from large-scale fishing if we want to continue to feed humanity with good, healthy protein.

 Currently less than 2% of the ocean is covered by marine protected areas, so there's lots of work to be done. Fortunately we already have some guidelines on what makes for an effective marine protected area. One standard uses what are called NEOLI features to plan and assess successful marine protected areas. NEOLI stands for: "No-Take, Enforcement, Old, Large, and Isolated". If a protected marine site can meet four of those five features it's likely to be successful in promoting biodiversity, and in allowing fisher people to collect better catches with less effort at the edge of the protected zone.

"What's that about catching more fish with less effort!?" -This Hawaiian Monk Seal
Courtesy: Dr. James P. McVey, NOAA Sea Grant Program. (NOAA Photo Library: anim0290) 

Obviously Papahānaumokuākea meets the "large" standard, but how's it do in those other areas? Papahānaumokuākea isn't a no-take zone because recreational and sport fisheries are still able to get permits to use the area. However, the scale of recreational fishing is so small relative to commercial fishing that this represents a potentially huge cutback in the amount of harvest within the monument. And before you get frustrated that small scale commercial fishers will be going out of business there's great news. Research has shown that when areas are protected from fishing, species tend to repopulate the protected area and spill over into fishing sites. The edges of the protected area usually have more numerous, larger, and healthier fish than areas far from any protected zone.

Of course no-take doesn't matter if you don't have strong enforcement. This is where Papahānaumokuākea will probably struggle most to meet the standards for protection. The monument is managed by a partnership between the federal and Hawaiian state governments. Hopefully a strong realtionship between these parties will be able to monitor such a vast area. Thankfully some very cool systems are coming online in the near future to help countries protect their natural resources. The Pew Charitable Trusts have developed an incredibly cool program called: Project Eyes on the Seas that uses satellite images, vessel GPS transponders, and home port data to police marine protected areas for relatively cheap.

       Bad Boys, Bad Boys, What'cha Gonna Do? What'cha Gonna Do,
When They Come Fo' You!?
Courtesy: Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons

Now obviously any newly expanded or created national monument isn't going to be considered "old". However, Papahānaumokuākea meets the last NEOLI standard by being isolated from cities and continents, and so thankfully hasn't historically been heavily impacted by human activities. Because exploitation has been limited, Papahānaumokuākea has many of the features we normally associate with old marine protected areas. In fact, in the deep channels between the islands, atolls, and sea mounts of the Hawaiian chain live black corals that have been growing in the same spot for 4,000 years.

Using the NEOLI standards, it looks like Papahānaumokuākea has the potential to help the ocean recover from our historical transgressions, and to provide for humanity in the future. Good environmental policy is about finding balance; meeting the needs of many while protecting the most vulnerable. The ecosystems that produce the natural resources we need have to be kept intact if they're to continue to provide raw materials, jobs, food, inspiration, and a connection to something larger than ourselves. National Monuments like Papahānaumokuākea are an important part of the land-use mosaic that allows the United States to provide the best life for its citizens.

The incoming administration has expressed a focus on the harvest and materials side of the benefits of the environment. An extractive management style may put places like Papahānaumokuākea at risk of having their protections revoked. Both goat farming hippies and doomsday preppers can agree that people have the right to survive off the land. If we can work to remind everyone that all the materials of our modern lives originated from, and are replenished in, pristine ecosystems; then places like Papahānaumokuākea will have a better chance of remaining unaltered. Let's work together to build a broad coalition of people who know the value of functioning ecosystems.


Roberts, Callum M., Hawkins, Julie P., & Gell Fiona R., "The Role of Marine Reserves in Achieving Sustainable Fisheries", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 360 pg. 123-132, 2008.

Bruckner, Andrew, De Angelis, Patricia, & Montgomery, Tony, "Case Study for Black Coral From Hawaii", Non-Detriment Findings Case Studies, WG 9- Aquatic Invertebrates, Case Study 1, Meeting of the IUCN 2008. 
Accessed via:

Edgar et Al. "Global Conservation Outcomes Depend on Marine Protected Areas with Five Key Features", Nature, Vol. 506, Pg. 216-229, Feb. 13th 2014.
Accessed via:

Long, Tony, "How Satellite Monitoring is Helping Catch Bad Actors", Pew Charitable Trusts Research & Analysis Online, March 7th 2016.
Accessed via:

US Congress, "American Antiquities Act of 1906"
Accessed via:

No comments:

Post a Comment