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Column: Protect environment, culture, Pacific Remote Islands

This article is published in the Star Advertiser.

By Jonee Peters and Mike Nakachi, Conservation Council for Hawai’i

“The fish do not belong to one entity.” — Marjorie Ziegler (1956-2018)

Anyone who had the privilege of working with Marjorie Ziegler knew that she was a tireless environmental champion, with a deep passion for protecting our natural places and the wildlife that call it home. As our executive director for 15 years, expanding protections for the Pacific Remote Islands (PRI) was one of her top priorities. As two people who carry her legacy at the Conservation Council for Hawaii, our efforts today honor Marjorie’s trailblazing history.

The national marine sanctuary designation process for the Pacific Remote Islands is currently underway. If a sanctuary is designated, it could surround the areas of Howland and Baker Islands, Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll that are unprotected today, barring industrial extraction, such as deep-sea mining, whose commercial interests have already targeted this area as a prime fit for its catastrophic practices. The sanctuary would consist of an area totaling 777,000 square miles, safeguarding some of the most diverse and remarkable tropical marine ecosystems on Earth, including corals, fish, sharks, marine mammals, seabirds and invertebrates, many of which are endangered, threatened or depleted.

An estimated 98 seamounts, or undersea mountains, would receive protection in the sanctuary. These undersea mountains are biodiversity hotspots, where new species are often revealed.

Our kupuna instilled in us malama aina. Aina goes well beyond the land. We are a part of the ocean — it is in our blood. Our ocean provides for all of us, sustains us, maintains us, and is an extension of who we are. The fish that live in our ocean belong to the Earth. No nation, no industry, no person can claim these fish as their own. And when our ocean provides us with food, we must practice this take sustainably.

Opponents, such as the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council (Wespac), spread a decade-long myth that a new sanctuary for the PRI would affect livelihoods by restricting industrial-scale fishing. The science and facts prove them wrong. According to an independent analysis of fishing effort in the PRI using publicly available Global Fishing Watch data, from 2013 to 2022, effectively zero percent of the U.S. purse seine and U.S. longline fleets’ fishing effort was spent inside the proposed protected area (0.41% and 0.02%, respectively). You read this right, not even a half percent of their fishing effort happens inside the unprotected area.

Even more, Wespac is benefiting from the large-scale protections that they vehemently opposed. A study published in Nature Communications co-authored by John Lynham, Ph.D, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa shows that after Papahanau- mokuakea and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monuments received expanded protections, the average revenue for the fishery from 2014 to 2017 was 13.7% higher than from 2010 to 2013. Simply put: The Hawaii-based longline industry has been catching more fish. Why? Fish need safe places to get bigger and reproduce. That’s what these areas allow — and even the industrial fishing industry benefits from spillover of these refuges.

This is a David vs. Goliath battle. But the tide is turning. Co-management of natural resources by indigenous communities is being valued at the highest levels once again.

Marjorie Ziegler was a warrior for our ocean and our environment. The PRI Coalition and its partners are carrying on her legacy. A sea of our voices can create a wave so strong, it’s deafening. It is time to drown out the misinformation spread by those who profit off our special places and replace them with scientific truth by establishing a national marine sanctuary for all of the Pacific Remote Islands. We must protect this wild place now.


NOAA is inviting public comments on the proposed sanctuary designation for the Pacific Remote Islands through June 2: at in-person meetings (this Wednesday in Honolulu and Thursday in Hilo), online, or via written comments; see Opens in a new tab.

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