Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary provides opportunity to protect a thriving ocean ecosystem

Jul 24, 2023

By Lilly Bock-Brownstein

A new national marine sanctuary designation would contribute to Biden’s 30×30 promise

In the Pacific Ocean, about 1,200 miles east of the Marianas, 900 miles southwest of the Hawaiian islands, and 1,000 miles north of Samoa, sits a collection of seven islands and atolls known as Pacific Remote Islands (PRI) Marine National Monument. This area holds the well-worn ocean trails that seafaring ancestors crossed to find their home in the Pacific. Now, as one of the last wild and relatively healthy tropical marine environments in the world, it is facing the combined threats of heightened climate variability, ocean acidification, large-scale industrial fishing, and deep sea mining.

“When you go to a place like the Pacific Remote Islands, it’s like you’re being transported to another world, but it’s what the natural system looks like,” said Alan Friedlander in a conversation with the Center for Western Priorities. Friedlander is the Chief Scientist for National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, and one of few people who has visited all of the Pacific Remote Islands.

PRI was initially designated as a marine national monument by President George W. Bush in 2009 using the Antiquities Act. Then, in 2014, the PRI Coalition was formed to advocate for an expanded area of protection which resulted in President Barack Obama expanding the monument by six times its original size that same year. The expansion added protections to the 200 nautical mile outer limit of the U.S. EEZ around several islands and atolls, but left in place the original 50 nautical mile boundaries for others.

The PRI Coalition is spearheading a second push for protection for the full extent of the PRI Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to establish 200 nautical mile boundaries of protected area around Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef, Howland Island, and Baker Islands. In early 2023, the PRI Coalition submitted a nomination to designate the full area of the Pacific Remote Islands as a national marine sanctuaryThis would create an additional layer of protection across the entire area that includes the currently unprotected areas in the PRI EEZ. In May 2022, the PRI Coalition sent a letter to the White House, requesting that President Joe Biden consider expanding protection of the marine national monument.

Map of Pacific Remote Islands National Monument and proposed expansion
Location of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and proposed expansion

With the nomination proposal, the PRI Coalition is also asking for the consideration of a co-management structure that includes Pacific Island Indigenous voices to be part of the decision-making process. By doing this, the U.S. can elevate protections to acknowledge the cultural, natural, and historical legacy of this unique ocean heritage habitat. In addition to this, the coalition is requesting a renaming process to shape an Indigenous name fit for this place that reflects its importance to Pacific Island Indigenous communities.

Not only would the proposed PRI National Marine Sanctuary ensure permanent protections for a critical ocean enclave while honoring cultural traditions and history, it would fulfill the Biden administration’s promise to protect 30 percent of U.S. waters by 2030. It would also become the world’s largest highly protected marine protected area (MPA), totaling about 760,000 square miles with the proposed extension.

In March 2023, President Biden responded to these community-led efforts by directing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to initiate the marine sanctuary designation process for PRIA few weeks later, NOAA officially accepted PRI’s nomination for consideration as a sanctuary and launched the first step in the sanctuary designation process, a public comment period on the potential designation which closed on June 2, 2023. The next step in the process is for NOAA to analyze public comments and prepare draft documents for a designation, including a management plan, draft environmental impact statement, and proposed boundaries and regulations.

description of the process to nominate a marine sanctuary
NOAA process to designate a new national marine sanctuary. Source:

What is a national marine sanctuary?

National marine sanctuaries, which are managed by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries within NOAA, establish strict ecological protections for marine ecosystems while also managing for multiple uses. They are established to protect marine environments that hold special conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, cultural, archaeological, scientific, educational, or aesthetic qualities. Sanctuaries protect these important marine habitats by managing or limiting human activities within the sanctuary, including commercial fishing, recreation, tourism, and mining, and are crucial areas for scientific research and public education. Each designated sanctuary has site-specific regulations pertaining to which activities are allowed and how these activities are permitted.

Marine sanctuaries were first established in the U.S. through the 1972 Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, which allows the secretary of the Department of Commerce (the home of NOAA), with approval from the president, to designate areas as marine sanctuaries. Marine sanctuaries can also be designated through bills passed by Congress or directly by the president via the Antiquities Act (the Antiquities Act allows presidents to establish marine national monuments, which are managed as part of the marine sanctuary system). The U.S. marine sanctuary system currently protects over 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters, including 15 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments (see map below).

Existing and proposed national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments. Source:

In June 2023, the Department of Commerce announced the largest investment in sanctuary protections in the history of the program, including $30 million to support sanctuary designations and $50 million for sanctuary infrastructure, such as new survey vessels and research technology. The Department also announced the acceptance of eight nominations into the sanctuary inventory.

A thriving marine habitat

The proposed PRI National Marine Sanctuary would protect vital coastal and deep sea habitat for coral, fish, sharks, turtles, rays, whales, dolphins, birds, and invertebrates, including dozens of endangered and threatened species. It would specifically strengthen protections for long-ranging species like gray reef sharks, green sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, red footed boobies, manta rays, melon-headed whales, and frigatebirds, among other species, and would protect key habitats for breeding, foraging, and resting that numerous species rely on for their survival.

Seabirds rely on pelagic fish as a source of food, which they bring back to their on-shore nests. Pelagic fish include tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and other species inhabiting the pelagic zone, the upper depths of the open ocean. The guano (excrement) produced by these birds provides nutrients for the coastal ecosystem, allowing for abundant growth of coral. Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and also some of the most endangered. PRI is home to some of the last remaining relatively untouched and thriving coral reefs, and the expanded protections would ensure these ecosystems are safeguarded from human disturbance.

Grey reef sharks and schools of anthias at Jarvis Island. Photo: Kelvin Gorospe, NOAA/NMFS/Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center

“Just like in real estate, when we look at large scale marine protected areas, it’s location, location, location,” said Robert Richmond, research professor and Director of the Kewala Marine Laboratory at University of Hawaii Manoa, in a conversation with the Center for Western Priorities. “Everything about the Pacific Remote Islands is magnificent, majestic, exquisite, and high biodiversity. In a world of climate change where we know things are being pushed away from the Western Pacific, this is the perfect place to set up what I call kind of a bank account; the living resources are your principal and their reproductive output is the interest.”

PRI has a vast amount of largely unexplored deep sea areas and biodiversity hotspots such as seamounts, underwater mountains formed by volcanic activity. New species are still being discovered on every deep sea dive into these areas, and these discoveries are critical for research on biodiversity and ecology, as well as for cultural heritage and traditional wayfinding. Just recently, scientists recorded the first ever footage of an undescribed species of jellyfish, which was spotted just once before by NOAA scientists in a 2015 deep sea expedition in PRI.

“You can’t say there is any place left on Earth that is truly pristine,” said Richmond. “They found beer cans on the bottom of the Mariana Trench, so to say anything is pristine is not really legitimate anymore. However, on the range of things out there, these are some of the most pristine areas left on Earth.”

Historic and cultural ties to PRI

The PRI area for the proposed National Marine Sanctuary is integrally tied to Native Pacific Islanders, whose presence in the area stretches back for millennia. The islands and atolls of PRI were a crucial stopping point for shelter and resources as Native Pacific Islanders voyaged across Pacific marine corridors. Without modern navigation technologies, ancient Pacific Islanders relied on knowledge of the stars, marine life, currents, weather, and other natural factors to find their way across the Pacific. The Pacific Islander cultural tradition of sea voyaging relied on island clusters as well as large, intact, marine corridors such as the area of the Pacific Remote Islands. Protecting the area is important as one of the only areas that–in its healthy, wild state–can be a way to honor, preserve, and perpetuate this history, connection, and wayfinding practice.

An outrigger canoe sailing across Hawaiian waters. Photo credit: JT Sorrell

In the 20th century, when Hawaii was a U.S. Territory, PRI was explored further. A group of Native Hawaiian men known as the Hui Panalāʻau were sent to the PRI from 1935 to 1940 to occupy these remote Pacific Islands for U.S. jurisdiction during World War II. While spending time on the island, these young men–between the ages of 18–24–would explore and document some islands and report back to the U.S. government on the environmental conditions, weather patterns, and wildlife. These reports are the foundation for future environmental and scientific discovery. PRI also has historical connections to 19th century whaling and World War II. It contains the sites of many documented and yet-to-be-discovered shipwrecks, World War II era military ordinance, and other cultural and historical artifacts that could be preserved through the proposed protections.

“The Pacific Remote Islands hold precious connections to our past and promise for our future as Pacific peoples. In the same way these waters are at the nexus of cross-cultural voyaging pathways across Polynesia, they likewise are an intersection of climate change mitigation, cultural practice and scientific discovery. We must protect these waters.”

— Sol Kahoʻohalahala, Native Hawaiian Elder, Kupa ʻĀina ʻo Lānaʻi and member of the PRI Coalition.

Threats and pressures on the PRI ecosystem

Marine ecosystems all over the world are facing significant threats from climate change, which is causing the ocean to warm, rise, and become more acidic. Due to its remote location and natural features, PRI is considered a climate resilient area that provides a chance to preserve an intact marine ecosystem and the biodiversity it supports. PRI offers a unique opportunity to study and understand the effects of climate change in a healthy tropical marine ecosystem, and to implement measures to protect the habitat before it experiences the most severe impacts of climate change.

“It would provide a unique laboratory to study the impacts of climate change because outside of a research station on Palmyra, there’s nobody living on the islands. So you would have an area that is a good control to measure the impacts that humans have undoubtedly had on the rest of the world,” said William Aila, former chairman and director of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources in a conversation with the Center for Western Priorities. “And in a worst case scenario, if climate change should go to the extreme and water temperature changes, PRI and Papahanaumokuakea will likely be the last refuges for coral species and coral affiliated species. When we do come out the other end, in tens of thousands of years, that’s the basis for the recolonization of coral reefs worldwide.”

Coral reef ecosystem at Barren Island. Photo: Andrew S. Wright, USFWS

The area around PRI has been identified as containing high value minerals used in renewable energy technology, including polymetallic nodules (nodules), cobalt crusts (crusts), and seafloor massive sulfides (SMS). Deep-sea mining for these minerals involves removing the top layer of sediment from the ocean floor, which kills off all the organisms living and relying on that deep-sea (benthic) layer. This type of mining also produces toxic tailings that damage pelagic fish species, including ecologically and economically important species like tuna. While there are no current mining proposals, the proposed expansion would ensure that mining cannot take place in the future in this important ecosystem.

School of fish at Howland Island. Photo: Kevin Lino, NOAA/NMFS/PIFSC/ESD

Marine habitats around the world are susceptible to overfishing by the commercial fishing industry, which causes rippling ecological effects. PRI is a critical habitat for some fish species that are heavily fished, and provides healthy habitat for these fish to thrive for the benefit of both the ecosystem and commercial fisheries. Currently, there is very little fishing activity taking place in the waters proposed for expanded protection, but habitats like the one surrounding PRI may become more heavily fished in the near term due to climate change, as species’ ranges shift with the changing ocean.

“If you damage those ecosystems, if they come back at all we’re not talking hundreds of years, we’re talking thousands of years. This is not something we can break and then fix, these are things that can’t be fixed in the human timeframe. We have to be cognizant of that, how quickly these systems are degraded. The best way to manage nature is to let nature manage itself.”

— Alan Friedlander, Chief Scientist for National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project

Local, national, and global impacts

Expanding protections around PRI would not only benefit ecosystems and species, but would also have a beneficial impact on the local economy. Marine protected areas have been shown to not only be able to successfully coexist with commercial fisheries, but can also benefit them by bolstering fish populations and ecosystem health. The expanded protections would also honor the ancestral relationship that many Native Pacific Islanders have with the ocean and provide ways to educate and explore the history of the Pacific ocean.

Expanding PRI would protect the vital Pacific ecosystem and meaningfully contribute to the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful InitiativeIf the proposed nomination successfully designates Pacific Remote Islands as a National Marine Sanctuary, it would achieve the national goal of protecting 30 percent of America’s ocean waters by 2030, a critical step to address the climate change and biodiversity crisis, and would meaningfully contribute to the international goal to protect 30 percent of the world’s waters by 2030.

As climate change and other human impacts take their toll on ocean ecosystems, the rare and thriving habitats for threatened and endangered species within PRI will become increasingly at risk and increasingly valuable. It’s important to take every measure available to safeguard this ecosystem from human threats and prevent marine habitat degradation while it is still possible to do so.