27. Aug, 2016

About Marine Sanctuaries and their protection

To pronounce Papahanaumokuakea,  just cut the word in four parts: PAPA HANAU MOKU AKEA.  It is the current name of Marine National Monument of Hawaii, a chain of  15 atols North East of Hawaii Island founded  originally in 2006 by president George W. Bush.  It then became the largest marine reserve in the World. In 2010, it was inscribed as a mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Site.  The site was initially named   North Western Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. But six years later it was expanded and renamed as Papahanaumokuwakea by President Obama, after Papahanumoku and Akea, the Hawaiian Gods of sky and earth. 

The surge of  large scale MPAs In the years after George Bush initiative a couple of still larger Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) followed,  to protect vast swaths of oceans from overfishing. Examples are:

  1. -the French National Park of the Coral Sea in New Caledonia, east of Australia with  501.930 square miles,  
  2. -the British Pitcairn reserve with 322.000 square miles in the central Pacific
  3. -the Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean spanning  397,678 square miles,
  4. -Palau  in the Western Pacific with 193,000 square miles
  5. -the Kermadec sanctuary in the South Pacific Ocean, north-east of New Zealand with 239.383 square miles.

But the recent expansion of the  Hawaii National Monument  in 2016 by  president  Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, has made it  the largest marine reserve in the world again.  The existing ocean reserve was extended to cover 582,578 square miles (see insert with expansion).* The decision was based on the Antiquities Act, giving  the president the  power to designate pieces of land or sea that are part of  American territory as protected areas.

The Hawaii expansion The recent expansion quadruples the size of the former Papahanaumokuakea reserve. It contains a number of valuable species including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, around 14 seabirds and the Laysan duck, which is the world’s most endangered duck. And there are also whales, sea turtles, yellow fin tuna and the big eye tuna that will profit from protection. The region includes six huge underwater volcanoes, one nearly 14,000ft high, and the USS Yorktown, which sank during the Battle of Midway and was discovered in 1998. Mining and commercial fishing will be banned in the area, although recreational fishing with a permit will be allowed to continue. Long lining with its negative impact on the environment will not be permitted. Of course the new regulations triggered protests from Hawaiian fishermen who can  still catch all they can catch now, but will have do it in  different and more remote areas.

Future and protection of  MPAs In contrast with the fishing companies, environmentalists and scientists have reacted enthusiastically  to these recent developments. But some also stated that MPAs are not isolated but part of a much larger environment  that remains threatened by climate change and pollution. A skeptic could say that the recent  surge  of MPAs could just be an easy way  for national  governments to polish up their environmental image. Nevertheless, there  still remains a posssibility  that they will prove effective on the long term in  building  a refuge of untouched ocean to protect and conserve a wealth of marine life. An crucial question however  is if  the local authorities will succeed to protect and guard these immense  areas. In the past it was proven difficult if not impossible to actually stop pirate fishing in remote MPAs.

Tracking vessels via satellite networks  Satellite radar enables to monitor and search for  illegal fishing vessels that infiltrate protected areas**. Companies like Global Fishing Watch and Eyes on the Sea  tap into satellite data via publicly available maps  of commercial fishing activity around the globe.  These satellites now use AIS (Automatic Identification System) radio signals emitted by most vessels for short-range intership communication. But a  space-based AIS receiver in low earth orbit will have a range to the horizon of more than 1000 nm, giving an excellent opportunity for large-area ocean surveillance.  Even private persons can now login via the Internet to these AIS-Receiving Networks.  An interesting case of a successful interception comes from the marine sanctuary Palau. Here the police succeeded to intercept a pirate vessel loaded with illegal catch guided by a non profit researcher in the US, who monitored suspect ships using satellite feeds on his laptop. ***