Nearly 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, a lesser-known but equally spectacular paradise teems in the waters of the Pacific: atolls and reefs hosting a diverse array of life, from multi-hued coral colonies to huge, placid sea turtles to boisterous birds.
Now, this area is gaining new protection—President Barack Obama announced on Sept. 25, 2014 that he will expand the existing Pacific Remote Islands National Monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act, building on the work of past leaders, including President George W. Bush who first designated the area a national monument in 2009.
Preserving habitat for marine life
The monument encompasses five existing wildlife refuges and a total of seven islands and atolls managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Department of Defense. These areas are vital habitat for sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, tropical fish, birds and a recently discovered species of beaked whale, and contain stretches of jungle-like coral thousands of years old. Watch:
In protecting a large ocean monument, President Obama is in good (and bipartisan) historic company. President Bush originally protected the monument in 2009 along with two other marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean. Earlier, in 2006, President Bush had protected the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (originally called the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument). When he left office, Bush had set aside more square miles of ocean for protection than any political leader in U.S. history.
The Antiquities Act has been used by presidents of both parties to preserve sites of unique natural and cultural value since President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law in 1906.
“We support conservation that takes a forward-looking eye toward future generations and considers the integrity of all ecosystems, including the oceans,” said Matt Keller, national monuments campaign director with The Wilderness Society. “Just as it is critical to protect large, connected landscapes for plants and animals on land, marine species need similar undisturbed areas that are havens for reproduction, feeding, and raising young.”
The proposed monument expansion drew broad support from scientists, businesses, conservation groups and Hawaiian leaders, compelling the president to move the new protections forward.
With more than two dozen conservation bills stalled in Congress this year, conservation groups encourage President Obama to act under the authority of the Antiquities Act to help advance protections for America’s clean air, water, land and wildlife.
Take a look at some of the incredible life in and around the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument:
Blacktip sharks patrol Kingman Reef. Pacific Remote Islands National Monument and the surrounding waters are home to a large population of sharks, rays and other predatory fish, the depletion of which threatens ocean ecosystems across the planet. Credit: Kydd Pollock (USFWS), flickr.
Existing Kingman Reef National Wildlife Refuge contains about three acres of “emergent” reef, along with more than 480,000 acres of submerged reefs, and is considered one of the most intact coral reef atoll ecosystems in the Pacific Ocean. It provides habitat for migratory seabirds as well as fish like the pictured manini, whose vertical black stripes make them instantly recognizable. Credit: Kydd Pollock (USFWS), flickr.
Masked boobies at Howland Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 400-acre piece of land fringed by reefs. The refuge, which hosts hundreds of thousands of seabirds and shorebirds at a time, including three species of boobies and lesser and great frigatebirds, was first established 40 years ago and expanded in 2009. Credit: C. Eggleston (USFWS), flickr.
A green sea turtle at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. These gentle, mostly-herbivorous creatures can live up to 80 years in the wild if left undisturbed, but populations have declined dramatically in many areas due to hunting, egg harvesting, habitat loss and other threats. Credit: Kydd Pollock (USFWS), flickr.
Notorious for their great size and voracious appetites, coconut crabs, like this one pictured on Palmyra Atoll, are thought to be the largest terrestrial arthropods alive today. They possess mighty claws capable of cracking their namesake fruit or lifting heavy objects, but remain vulnerable to human activity, including hunting and coastal development. Credit: Laura M. Beauregard (USFWS), flickr.
Over 400 species of fish and 130 species of stony corals are estimated to call the waters around Palmyra Atoll home, lending it an almost dizzying array of life. Palmyra Atoll is considered an important living laboratory for studying the effects of climate change in marine ecosystems. Credit: Amanda Meyer (USFWS), flickr.
Hundreds of species of invertebrates inhabit Palmyra Atoll and surrounding waters, including these giant clams. These colorful titans, sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds each, likely gave rise to ancient (inaccurate) legends about man-eating mollusks, as represented in countless cartoons. Due to overharvesting, they are considered vulnerable. Credit: Amanda Pollock (USFWS).
Palmyra Atoll contains the world’s second-largest colony of red-footed boobies, the smallest of the booby species but a famously strong flyer and diver. Though its isolated patches of tropical habitat mean it has few natural predators, some populations nonetheless remain at-risk due to coastal development, reckless hunting and egg-collecting. Palmyra Atoll is among the greatest seabird breeding sites known to man. Credit: Laura M. Beauregard (USFWS), flickr.
Soldierfish are among nearly 250 species of fish that have been recorded around Baker Island National Wildlife Refuge. Threatened green turtles and endangered hawksbill turtles are known to feed in the reefs surrounding the island. Credit: Jim E. Maragos (USFWS).
A hermit crab at Howland Island National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS, flickr.
Diving at Kingman Reef, which harbors stands of some of the oldest deep-water corals on earth, including some thought to be about 5,000 years old. More than 200 species of fish have been documented at Kingman Reef, including sharks, rays, eels, groupers, parrotfishes and tuna. Bottlenosed dolphins and melon-headed whales also frequent the area. Credit: LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps (NOAA Photo Library), flickr.