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A diverse coalition of Pacific Islanders has proposed creating a cultural, scientific, and historically grounded National Marine Sanctuary around the Pacific Remote Islands (Palmyra, Kingman, Howland, Baker, Jarvis, Wake and Johnston). We believe that fully protecting the unique and essential marine ecosystems of this vast central Pacific area will assure these waters remain productive for generations to come, and that the rich culture and history of the area are documented, preserved and celebrated.

This new sanctuary would overlay and complement the current Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, while expanding two of the boundaries left unprotected in 2014 to create the largest MPA network on earth. 

Today, the Pacific Ocean’s marine resources are struggling due to climate change, which is a significant threat to marine life. The ocean is warming, causing changes in currents, temperature, and acidity, which are disrupting marine ecosystems throughout the Pacific. The science suggests that a fully protected sanctuary at the scale of the Pacific Remote Islands would help mitigate climate impacts.

Other serious threats to the ocean include pollution, deep sea mining, and the increasing depletion of fish stocks, including several that are important to Pacific peoples. While highly industrialized fishing assures tuna for consumers and employment at American Samoa’s cannery, it has also raised concerns for the long-term productivity of the tunas targeted by purse seiners, as well as the many species that are by-catch of that rapacious fishery, some of which are threatened with extinction.

Moreover, scientists and small-boat fisherman across the Pacific are concerned about the decreased size of both their catches, and individual fish they harvest, both of which suggest overfishing and a decline in the reproductive capacity of several tuna species.

Conservation can help reverse this trend. A recent study by the University of Hawaiʻi and University of Wisconsin shows that yellowfin tuna outside the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument boundary, improved by over 50% since it was expanded in 2016. A similar spillover bonus should be expected for the proposed Pacific Remote Islands Sanctuary.

We need to do more. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests we need to protect 30% of the ocean. A 2018 study published in the journal Nature found that doing so could help reduce the risk of extinction for marine species by up to 80%. Another study, published in the journal Science in 2020, found that taking global action at this scale could help mitigate the effects of climate change by up to 40%. 

Where the evidence is lacking is in the unsupported argument that conservation will kill the fishing industry and the jobs it supports. Previously, opponents of the Pacific Remote Islands and Papahānaumokuākea monuments’ expansions claimed that conservation would lead to closure of the cannery, revenue loss, and (our favorite) no sashimi for the holidays. None of it was true. In fact, in many years after protections were expanded, catch rates increased and more quota was needed.

Now, it’s the cannery will close (yet again). However, the truth about the cannery is a complicated economic story about global markets, workers’ wages, taxpayer subsidies and offshoring profits to the cannery’s foreign owner. A new sanctuary will have no impact on the cannery’s survival. The truth is in the evidence.

For the two unprotected areas that the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition has proposed to include in the sanctuary, the evidence is clear. A recent analysis using publicly available data shows that between 2013 and 2022 effectively zero fishing effort for the U.S. purse seine fleet (0.41%) and longline fleet (0.02%) was in these areas. Put simply, the fishing is happening elsewhere because it is more economically viable.

The Coalition’s sanctuary proposal recognizes that the Pacific Remote Islands have long connected Hawaiʻi, Micronesia and the broader Pacific through exploration and wayfaring, but also through the connectivity of the ocean itself. Through a sanctuary process that includes representation of all cultures connected to these important islands and surrounding waters, traditions can be reclaimed through conservation, co-management, and proper re-naming of these special islands. The Coalition hopes others will join us on this voyage.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Pacific Remote Island Coalition members William Aila, Jr. and Rick Gaffney are both life-long fishermen from Hawaiʻi. Both have served on the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council and the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Advisory Council.