The largest protected natural area in the United States isn't just on land, it's primarily at sea. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument encompasses 583,000 square miles of protected waters, islands and atolls that make up the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and surrounding areas. Both a refuge for wildlife and a place of profound cultural importance to generation upon generation of the native peoples' of Hawaii—the region's significance stretches both physical distances and through time itself.
Athline Clark, NOAA Superintendent of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, brings a wealth of history and passion to her job, while managing the conservation of the monument's resources. She previously worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and served as Hawai`i's co-manager for Papahānaumokuākea. She has over 20 years of experience working with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, first in the Florida Keys, then as a sanctuary advisory council member for Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
In June 1998, when President Clinton signed an Executive Order directing Federal agencies to study, restore and conserve coral reef ecosystems, The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force was established, the largest nature preserve in the country, which addresses threats to coral reefs worldwide. Clark worked with the state of Hawaii to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, which President Clinton called "a bold and visionary action."
With the help of Clark and her team's diligent work, Papahānaumokuākea's marked as the largest fully protected conservation area in the United States. "We also worked to get the monument designated internationally because we felt that the only way that we could have the layers of protection and the layers of recognition that were needed up there was to also put this on all the maps of the world," says Clark. "This is one of those places as an area to be avoided but also appreciated. There's an international stamp on every nautical chart of every nation in the world for this monument. It confirms that it's recognized as an international and global treasure."
GOOD spoke with Athline Clark who shared her insight into the history, protection and administration of one of the most pristine environments on Earth.
Was the ocean something you always identified with?
It's in my blood. I am Keiki O Ka 'Aina—born and raised here in the islands. From my earliest days, I was always down at the beach. I learned how to bodysurf first. Then I started surfing. At Kailua High School, my teacher Ray Rounds turned me onto marine science. His way of teaching was interactive. He taught us how to collect an organism, how to study it and then eat it. He would roam the halls of some of these old Japanese department stores that we used to have in Hawaii to find things like dried jellyfish. He made sure everything we studied had all three senses incorporated as a part of our learning experience.
Were you always curious about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?
As a typical kid here in Hawaii, there were hard choices to make. I asked myself, "Do I stay here or do I leave? Do I go to college here? Do I try the mainland?" I actually decided to stay here for college and for graduate school. I had some really unique opportunities by doing that. I was in college when I first heard about the Leeward Islands, or what are now known today as Papahānaumokuākea, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. I was in a Marine Science program and I wanted to go on a research expedition to start to map out what all of the different organisms were within the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. That's how I found out about the place and how amazing of a resource it was. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough space and I didn't get the chance to go. I swore that I was going to get there one day. It became one of my goals to learn more about it. That's how my journey started. Then I worked over 20 years to actually get a chance to get there and do something about protecting it.
Take us through the history of the monument. How did one of the largest protected areas on Earth come to be?
There's been six different presidents, starting with President Roosevelt and all the way through President Obama who have recognized the importance of it. President Roosevelt sent in Marines because of the impacts that were happening to the seabird populations in the early 1900s. Then it was designated as a bird refuge and later a wildlife refuge. President Obama expanded it to over 582,000 square miles. During all of that time, part of the recognition was because of the unique set of islands and atolls. It's the only atolls in the United States that have a fundamental importance for wildlife and wildlife conservation. Over the years, there has been layer upon layer of protection that have been put on that place.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, 2016
You also nominated it as the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the U.S. that combines natural and cultural elements.
We pushed it through 10 years ago as a mixed site. You had six different presidents over 100 years, plus the International Maritime Organization, recognizing how important this place is. It is a World Heritage Site of global significance. It's recognized for both its natural and cultural importance to mankind. It's a particularly sensitive sea area on all the International Maritime Organization charts of the world. That legacy means it's a place that people know not to mess with.
What does it mean to steward a national monument that is bigger than all the national parks combined? How do you go about such a monumental task?
What makes us unique is that we're co-managed with the State of Hawaii, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Each of us brings different values and skills to the table to help with the management focus and structure. Our motto is a place where nature and culture are one. We strive to look at ways to make that happen within our management regime and through our access and briefings. We learn, make cultural connections, revitalize the culture and carefully craft it to have access to this beautiful place.
How have native Hawaiians pushed forward protecting their environment?
There were a couple of really wise Hawaiian elders, one of them named Uncle Buzzy Agard, who had fished up there during the '70s. He had seen firsthand that using some fishing methods in some of the reef fisheries wasn't sustainable. With the help of environmental organizations and other native fishing experts like Tammy and Isaac Harp—they really helped push the movement along, raise concerns and believed that the fishery would open back up. We've had numerous access trips and mentorships that we have all collectively done to try to get Native Hawaiian community members up into Papahānaumokuākea and to work with them. In some cases, once they've returned, we've created Mele or new chants about the place created. Now we use it to start every meeting—to do protocol and to honor the monument.
You've made a concerted effort to get the community involved in preservation and education. What's happening right now?
We have archaeologists who have been on our staff and now review a number of the old chants to try to better identify all the Hawaiian names of the islands. We seek in all of our educational materials to recognize not just the English names, but the Hawaiian names of places too. We continue to work with educators on new and innovative ways to enhance the understanding both biologically and culturally with school children. We have supported several finding expeditions. Using traditional navigation skills with the vaka— the double hull sailing canoe—apprentice navigators go up to Nihoa and Mokumanamana and learn traditions. Day to day, we don't speak Hawaiian. I wish we did. We do our best to learn about it. We also look holistically at a place not from just the western perspective. I feel that it's important we all look holistically at any place to understand the importance of preservation.That's when we truly understand it.
What memories stick with you from spending time within the monument?
There's no way to explain what two million seabirds nesting on eggs at sunrise looks like. Hearing it, seeing it and being there for it. Or once the chicks are born and the little fluffy cannon balls start to flap their wings to fly—there's something just absolutely magical about that. I remember going to Kure Atoll on a marine debris cruise. We had been working on the back reef, which was on the backside of the island, just pulling out nets. We were trying to remove tons and tons of marine debris, which is one of the threats up there. The next day, we found out there was a 12-foot tiger shark in the area we were diving in. But we spent hours and hours getting towed around behind a boat looking for marine debris. It was almost this Zen-like state we were in just watching the corals and the benthic habitat go by and seeing what was there and how diverse it was.
You are working with one of the most remote, most pristine ocean regions in the world. You touched on marine debris. Is this something you still struggle with?
The National Fishery Service basically started pulling marine debris off of the reefs in the northwestern Hawaiian Island – for many years, it was actually a multi agency initiative in 1996. Since then, there's been a mission almost every year until about three years ago, when we just couldn't afford to spend as much time up there every year as we did previously. But we're at over 100,000 metric tons now. There's about 57,000 pounds a year that washes ashore in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Initially, it was almost all discarded fishing gear. Since then, it has changed and there's a lot more of it. It's made up of all the different types of plastics, bottles and bottle caps and every other kind of disposable plastic that you see in the world. But it washes up on the beaches and on coral reefs. Initially, they were finding—back before they banned the high seas drift nets—four tons of high seas drift gill nets. It would take days to cut those out and put it into a boat.
NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program Marine Debris Team, 2016
What are some bizarre items that you've discovered?
TVs, computer screens, whole boats or parts of boats and wrecks. For a while, it was the place to get old Japanese fishing balls made of glass. That used to be one of the treasures of going up there. You can also find toothbrushes and cigarette lighters— stuff that you wouldn't think gets there, but is part of the biggest hazard, especially for the albatross and birds. They feed on food filled with plastics. They die by the hundreds every year.
How has the creation of this monument furthered the cause of science and understanding of the oceans?
Major understandings about reef resilience, what happens after reef bleaches and how quickly it will recover is all important in maintaining Hawaiian Islands.The ability to understand that and what happens in the stages of recovery that occur has been very useful. Understanding endemism and how endemism changes when you move across different latitudes and habitat types helps. We recently had this absolutely wonderful scientific journey that occurred with a wave glider. It's one of those autonomous vehicles that just goes on its own power. It journeyed 2,500 nautical miles from its home port in Kōwhai, all the way up to Laysan Atoll and back. We identified what kinds of whales we had and what species they were. We looked at some of the banks and shoals to see how important that area is for humpback whales and other cetaceans. We found whales in places that we never knew they existed before. It was remarkable.
Is it possible for the public to experience any areas within the monument? If not, does that present a challenge for creating that emotional and visceral connection between the public and the environment?
Midway was once open for visitors, it has been closed for a while because they just haven't had the resources to continue to sustain it. Ideally, when the monument was created, under George Bush, Midway was meant to be the window on the monument. It was never going to be a place where you could have hundreds of people go. It just isn't able to sustain it. It is first and foremost a wildlife refuge. So, wildlife first. But the ability to take people up there and visit would be desirable, but it's just trying to find the resources to make that happen. The ability to take National Geographic, PBS, Nature, BBC and all of the other types of groups go up there is all really important, so that we can bring the place to the people. We've also worked in partnership with Google and then Google Maps of most of the islands, so people can go do a Google Street View of what's up there. It's an incredibly fragile environment, and many of the atolls just can't sustain any access. There's bird burrows everywhere. You can't even walk without burying a bird. The fragility of the place won't sustain it in most areas. But there are opportunities to bring the place to the people and hopefully to take a few people up.
Why is investing in conservation so important?
Palauan President Tommy Remengesau Jr. was the Man of the Year in Time magazine because of the conservation initiatives that he put in place after his reefs bleached the first time. I think Papahānaumokuākea is a good example of that, as well. They're discovering all kinds of changes in the ecosystems of the places that tourism went to on a regular basis such as Hanauma Bay. There's been a few articles in the Honolulu Star Advertiser about what they're discovering about the reefs coming back and the behaviors of the fish without those people there. I think when you allow a place to have some quiet, it doesn't take very long. We're discovering that in national parks and other places all across the country right now. When they have a chance to rest—things repair. Do I think we should shut every place off all the time? No. I think we could come up with different conservation strategies where we could set aside places for rest in the future. Now with seeing what we've learned? Yes, that should become a part of our conservation success story and our management strategies toward the future.
Mark Sullivan, NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, 2012
What's your dream for the future of humanity's relationship with the oceans look like?
I think that it's important to understand that nothing globally we have is infinite— everything is finite. We're finding that out when it pertains to our atmosphere, to our planet as a whole and particularly to our oceans. I would like to see us do a better job recycling. I'd like us to think about how we can reuse items and rethink the way that we dispose of things. I go back to the glass balls that I collected when I was young on the beach. When I found a big one, it was the best day of my life. I was eight years old and I still have it in my possession to this day. What the Japanese fishing boats used to do is take the glass bottles that they were using—and they had their own glass making plants aboard—and they would just blow those into the glass balls to make floats for their fishing nets. Should we go back to some of that? I think we should.
How do you think our society can improve?
It's so easy to make everything out of plastic. I think plastic has its place, but not for everything. I'd like us to do a better job of understanding fisheries that are there and how finite they really are. I don't think we should overfish all of our species to the point that they won't recover. Coming up with new and innovative ways to ensure that that food supply exists into the future is smart. I also think that transporting goods and services on the ocean is fundamentally something that isn't going to change because it's the cheapest way to transport across the globe. But let's do it as economically as possible. Let's come up with ways to do it that doesn't cause so much pollution. That's what I want for our world.