What is it?
As a national monument, the designated area will receive stronger environmental protections.
The area comprises 140,000 square miles of ocean dotted with dozens of coral reefs and tiny islands; it is a 1,400-mile-long, 100-mile-wide swath of pristine marine habitat larger than all U.S. national parks combined.
The area is considered an ecological jewel. It is a nesting and breeding site to more than 14 million seabirds and home to 7,000 marine and terrestrial species, more than a quarter of which are found nowhere else in the world.
It is an important nesting area for the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle and home to the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, of which only 1,300 remain. The coral reefs of the region provide vital breeding and nursery habitat for numerous fish and other marine species.
Another key element of the area is its role as a breeding ground for sharks. This is particularly important in light of an emerging and counterintuitive discovery among ecologists that predator populations may be even more important to an ecosystem that the health of species at the bottom of the food pyramid in an ecosystem. Predators are not merely parasites on an ecosystem who serve as canaries in the mine to indicate its impending troubles. They actually drive ecosystem health.
The decision implements one of the growing consensus concepts in endangered species protection: Endangered species tend to be found clustered in key habitats, and providing strong protections for these key habitats through ecosystem management is the key to preventing these species from going extinct, because individual species function within an entire ecosystem. Usually, a species within an ecosystem isn't singled out for trouble, while the other specicies in the ecosystem are thriving. There is a web of life in any given habitat, and all species unique to a habitat rise and fall together to a great extent.
As Brian Nowicki, conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, put it:
Habitat loss and destruction is the No. 1 reason why species are imperiled. Clearly, if a species is close to extinction, it's occupying a habitat far smaller than it was when it was healthy. How can we expect a species to rebound if we don't give it expanded habitat to do so?
As set forth in another study, a habitat orientation allows us be proactive and prevent species from being endangered in the first place:
Ecosystem-level protection has a potential to avoid some species conservation problems in the future. . . . . A shift in focus to habitat protection and recovery planning is likely to make the species conservation goal of the ESA [Endangered Species Act] more attainable while reducing uncertainty. . . . Rather than waiting for the number of members of a species to get low enough to worry about extinction, a more effective strategy would be to identify potential problems and mitigate them before it becomes necessary to invoke the ESA. If that cannot be done through cooperation, then the ESA with its protection and recovery mandates becomes necessary. . . . The solution in most cases is providing adequate habitat.
This approach is a departure from a previous approach that looked at one species at a time in isolation, has focused on threats specific to that species, and has focused on imposing restrictions on piecemeal parcels of land held by private landowners. This has often proven difficult to enforce and has generated controversy, without prioritizing critical habitats over areas of relatively marginal importance.
The Politics and History
This action, under the Antiquities Act of 1906 allows for a more flexible conversion to higher protections than national park status and does not require Congressional approval. The area in Hawaii was first designated for protection in 1913 by Theodore Roosevelt, with protections expanded by President Clinton in a 2000 executive order. President Clinton used the power to create similar protections in Colorado in the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in 2000, after having a few months earlier upgraded the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument to National Park status. One wonders if the departure of Coloradan Gail Norton from her post as Secretary of Interior in the Bush Administration, where she had been a firm opponent of expanding habitat protections during her tenure, was a factor in the timing of this decision, and in the decision to give NOAA, rather than the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Interior Department, jurisdiction over the monument.
Let's hope that we see more habitat decisions along these lines in the future.