HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In what's being called a historic step toward protecting global ocean resources, President Barack Obama has approved a significant expansion of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands marine national monument and will discuss the designation in Honolulu next week at a global conservation conference.
The expansion makes the Papahanumokuakea Marine National Monument the largest marine conservation area in the world at a time when ocean ecosystems are under increasing threat from global climate change.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who proposed the expansion in June, called the designation "one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans."
The White House said Obama will address Pacific island leaders Wednesday night at the International Union for Conservation of Nature's World Conservation Congress in Honolulu.
Thousands of dignitaries and conservationists from around the world are set to attend the conference, and will hear Obama discuss his decision to quadruple the size of Papahanumokuakea Marine National Monument.
After addressing leaders in Honolulu, Obama will travel to Midway Atoll on Thursday to mark the expansion of the marine monument and "highlight first-hand how the threat of climate change makes protecting our public lands and waters more important than ever," the White House said.
President George Bush created the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a decade ago.
Conservationists and others have heralded the proposed expansion of the marine national monument as critical for the well-being of some 7,000 species of marine life, including endangered whales and turtles. The monument is also home to black coral, the longest-living marine species in the world.
But opponents say it would cripple Hawaii's fishing economy, increasing the no-fishing zone by 350 percent. Among the detractors: Former U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka and former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who argued for an economic impact study before a decision was made.
All commercial fishing is prohibited in the national monument, though recreational fishing and the removal of fish or other resources for Native Hawaiian cultural practices is allowed with a permit.
"Expanding Papahanaumokuakea will replenish stocks of ahi, promote biodiversity, fight climate change, and give a greater voice to Native Hawaiians in managing this resource," Schatz said, in a statement Thursday. "President Obama's declaration is only the beginning. To create continued success, we will need to follow through with management, research, educational opportunities and enforcement."
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said in a statement she also supports the expansion of the monument, and Obama's efforts to "enhance protections for our ocean ecosystem."
She added, "I appreciate the president's recognition of the importance of commercial fishing to Hawaii's way of life and our shared goal of supporting Hawaii's sustainable pelagic fisheries."
Also Friday, the White House announced that the state would play a greater role in the monument's management.
The federal government is poised to sign new agreements aimed at "elevating the voice of native peoples in management of our resources" with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
OHA is now a co-trustee of the monument, a position the agency said "places the Native Hawaiian voice at all levels of decision-making in the governance of Papahanaumokuakea." OHA Chief Executive Officer Kamanaopono Crabbe.
"This has been a 10-year effort to achieve this position and this success marks the beginning of a new era of collaboration for the co-managers of the area to fulfill the tremendous responsibility of protecting and caring for this sacred place," said
In addition to unique marine life, the monument has important cultural significance.
The expanded area is considered sacred to Native Hawaiians, and plays a significant role in Native Hawaiian creation and settlement stories. And within the monument, there are shipwrecks and downed aircraft from the Battle of Midway in World War II.