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What Papahanaumokuakea means for birds

White Tern nests in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
White Tern chick, by Dan Clark/USFWS-Pacific Region.

On August 27, 2016, President Obama greatly expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, in the Pacific Ocean, making it the largest protected marine area in the world.

What does the expansion mean for birds?

Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument was established by President George W. Bush in 2006. At that time, it covered 140,000 square miles of ocean, encompassing waters within 50 nautical miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, or the Leeward Islands.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the small islands and atolls in the Hawaiian island chain located northwest (in some cases, far to the northwest) of the islands of Kauai and Niihau.

President Obama’s action expanded the monument outward, to 200 nautical miles of the islands, quadrupling it to more than 580,000 square miles. Both presidential actions were made under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Black-footed Albatross nests in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
Black-footed Albatross pair, by Dan Clark/USFWS-Pacific Region.

Even before 2006, most of the islands and atolls that are now within the monument were protected. They were managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as National Wildlife Refuges. Hawaiian Islands NWR (established in 1909) includes most of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and Midway Atoll NWR (established in 1988) includes several islands that were once a U.S. Navy base.

Papahanaumokuakea’s birds

Together, the two NWRs support some of the largest seabird colonies in the world. Approximately 99 percent of the world’s Laysan Albatross and 98 percent of the world’s Black-footed Albatross nest within the refuges, as do large numbers of other seabirds, including Bonin Petrel, Bulwer’s Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Gray-backed Tern, Sooty Tern, and Brown Noddy. Each year, approximately 2-3 million seabirds nest on Midway Atoll alone.

The monument also supports shorebirds that breed in the Arctic but migrate through or winter in the Pacific, including Pacific Golden Plover, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Wandering Tattler, and Ruddy Turnstone.

The seabirds that breed within the monument spend most of their lives in and above the Pacific Ocean. The expanded monument protects waters essential to their survival. During the nesting season, seabirds scour the waters surrounding their nests — up to 200 miles away — for food for their chicks. The monument helps protects these activities. For example, commercial longline fishing will now be prohibited in the expanded monument area. Such operations have historically caught albatross as bycatch.

Many avian threats within the monument will continue, including invasive species, disease, hurricanes, tsunamis, drought, and ocean rise as a result of global warming. The expansion will also not prevent plastic from accumulating in the Pacific Ocean. It has been estimated that albatross chicks are fed more than five tons of plastic each year on Midway Atoll.

It’s true that most birders will never visit Papahanaumokuakea or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, as they are among the remotest places on Earth. But you can see Laysan Albatross, Red-footed Booby, Red- and White-tailed Tropicbirds, Great Frigatebird, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, and other seabirds much of the year from Kilauea Point NWR (Hotspot Near You No. 98), on Kauai, the northernmost of the main Hawaiian Islands.

Read more about Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

Kilauea Point NWR, on Kauai, Hotspot Near You No. 98.

Conservation measures keep albatrosses off the hook.

Study: Seabird populations declined 70 percent in industrial era.

This article was written by Jason A. Crotty.


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