Papahānaumokuākea : a marine sanctuary to protect Hawaii’s natural and cultural heritage

Meets Solomon Kaho’ohalahala, one of the guests of Island Voices that has travelled from Hawaii to Tahiti for this gathering. For many years, Solomon has campaigned in Hawaii to promote the creation of Papahānaumokuākea marine sanctuary, today one of the largest marine reserve in the world.

In Hawaiian, Papahānaumokuākea translates to “where life originates from”. This is the name that was given to Hawaii’s North-West large marine reserve. In Hawaiian traditions, this area is considered to be the root that brings together humans and gods. The highly protected 1.5 million square kilometres area allows to protect most of the marine species present in the region, all throughout their life cycles. It is home to over 7000 species: 22 marine bird species, 24 marine mammals, a dozen species of sharks, five species of sea turtles threatened of going extinct, and four species of tuna that have commercial value. A quarter of all species that live in the reserve are endemic which means that they cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.

Worldwide, Papahānaumokuākea is also one of the largest areas dedicated to preserving the local indigenous culture. Integrating traditional knowledge and practices is a key aspect of the sanctuary’s management scheme ; a way to honour and enhance Hawaii’s cultural heritage. The reserve’s management scheme spotlights ancestral practices such as observing the natural world, perpetuating the indigenous worldviews and epistemologies that are based on the intimate relationship that local communities have with this place. A cornerstone of this “bio-cultural” approach to environmental management is the fact that cultural referents are directly involved in park management. This approach could become a model to replicate in terms of conservation practices around the world.

Papahānaumokuākea was created in 2006 by American President George W. Bush. In 2016, after large mobilisation from the Hawaiian population, the sanctuary was extended by President Barack Obama. With over 1.5 million square kilometres that are strictly protected, this park is one of the largest marine reserves in the world. Its implementation has set a new norm in terms of ocean conservation and has sparked an international movement that aims at creating the first generation of large marine protected areas, in which all industrial fishing and seabed mining is prohibited. Since 2006, about a dozen similar reserves have been created worldwide, with a strong lead from the Pacific nations (Australia, Marianas, Pitcairn, Kiribati, Palau, Rapa Nui and the Cook Islands). Thanks to these sanctuaries, about 3% of the world oceans are now highly protected. Although this progress is inspiring, the numbers remain low in comparison to the recommendation made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which states that 30% of all marine habitats must be highly protected if we are to benefit from marine ecosystems in the future. We haven’t reached optimal protection of our oceans yet.

Solomon Kaho’ohalahala descends from a long line of Hawaiian navigators, considered to be the guardians of both land and sea. He has been a member of the Maui Regional Council as well as the Hawaiian State Legislative Assembly. Solomon has always been a strong advocate of Papahānaumokuākea marine reserve. Nowadays, he represents the Hawaiian indigenous community within the park management committee. He was in tahiti for “Islands Voices”, a group of cultural and environmental referents from the civil society of the Pacific region, gathered to strengthen international cooperation on Ocean conservation. Thanks to the French Polynesian federation of environmental associations Te Ora Naho, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bertarelli Foundation, this group came together for a week in June 2019 in French Polynesia. This is where, Jérôme Petit, director of the Pew-Bertarelli Ocean Legacy program in French Polynesia, interviewed him.

Coastal zone in Papahānaumokuākea marine reserve (credit : Pew)

Interview with Solomon Kaho’ohalahala :

How is Papahānaumokuākea an important site in the Hawaiian culture ?

In our traditional culture, the North-West Islands of Hawaii are the path that every islander takes after their body dies. Through this path, they come back to pō, kingdom of the gods. It is a sacred place that is invaluable to us. The Hawaiian story that tells about the creation of all Life on Earth starts deep down in the Oceans and reaches the summit of the tallest Mountains. According to this legend, the first organism that ever existed was a coral. Humans came in much later, after everything else had been created. As humans, we honour all the species that have come before us, especially marine species. Nowadays, science research has confirmed that some corals within the park boundaries are 5000 years old ; this discovery reasserts our traditional knowledge.

What were the obstacles in implementing the reserve?

The marine reserve is the result of a 20-year campaign. Our population was very active in the fight that allowed to recognize the cultural significance of Papahānaumokuākea. There were strong conflicts, mostly with the industrial fishing industry, who led a misinformation campaign to undermine the project.

How did you manage to overcome this opposition?

We have reassured our local fishermen by giving them real information. As they understood that the marine reserve was going to benefit them, they started becoming the strongest advocates in favour of the project. Then, Nainoa Thompson, the great Hawaiian navigator, as well as many key Hawaiian ambassadors, made an official request to President Obama to extend the park.

We all agreed that the unique natural and cultural treasures of this area cannot be compared to the potential economic gains from industrial resource extraction and massive habitat destruction. In the end, the American President acted in favour of conservation.

Written by Jérôme Petit (Director of the Pew-Bertarelli Ocean Legacy program in French Polynesia). Translated into English by Pauline Sillinger.

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