Changing Planet

Pristine Seas facing major setback as Trump Administration reviews world’s largest marine preserves, Enric Sala warns

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala is concerned that the recently announced U.S. Department of the Interior review of Papahanaumokuakea and four other marine monuments may be the first major setback for Pristine Seas, a National Geographic project launched in 2008 to explore and help save the last wild places in the ocean. Pristine Seas has helped create 13 marine reserves covering some 4.4 million square kilometers. Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument was created by President George W. Bush and greatly expanded by President Obama last year, making it, at 1.5 million square kilometers (about 500,000 square miles), the largest protected part of the ocean in the world.

President Barack Obama at Turtle Beach on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“In the last eight years with Pristine Seas we’ve been involved with the creation of 13 of the largest marine reserves in the world and more are coming,” Sala, the leader of the Pristine Seas program, told an audience at the National Geographic Society Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. today. “We thought that these were done. But now we are experiencing the potential first major setback, which is that the Department of Interior has a review of the marine national monuments, the largest marine reserves in the U.S. and in the world, places of extraordinary richness in biodiversity, and they want to open them up to tuna and shark fishing.”

A view of Midway Atoll from Air Force One. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The Pristine Seas team was trying to figure out how to counteract the threat to the marine reserves, Sala said. “Rational arguments were used to create these reserves under Presidents Bush and Obama. The conflicts that the fishing industry argued against the establishment of these reserves, and now for opening them up for fishing, had been counteracted by real data and facts, so we know that rationally we have won. We can use data, science and economics to show it will be a mistake [to open the reserves to fishing].”

“This is a true land grab, a few companies trying to exploit something that belongs to all Americans and humanity.”

Sala said the team was trying to figure out how to use the emotional side and how to activate as many people as possible with a big call to action. “This is a true land grab, a few companies trying to exploit something that belongs to all Americans and humanity. So that’s our first big setback and we’re still working on it, but we’re very worried about it.”


A school of convict tangs, or manini, swim above the corals in the waters around Midway Atoll. Credit: Dan Clark/USFWS


Watch a recording of the discussions at the Explorers Festival (June 15)

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Mike Daak

    The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument includes Midway Island. Midway is a National Wildlife Refuge AND a Battle of Midway National Memorial, yet it’s possibly the only National Monument that is completely closed to the public – with no plan to reopen.

    Midway was intended to be the ‘door’ to the Monument, there’s a legal mandate for that, but that door has remained mostly closed for the past 15 years, seemingly due to the lack of motivation by the USFWS. They do a great job in managing wildlife but are not qualified nor interested in managing historical resources or in responding to public concerns.

    Equally important in considering whether to resend the Monument status, the current ‘management’ of this monument needs careful review. The current problem at Midway is that the USFWS conduct themselves as if they are above the law and without regard to public opinion.

    “Public Engagement” has become the norm in major programs that are publicly funded, yet the public is kept far away from Midway, by the USFWS.

    When President Obama visited Midway, in September of 2016, many of us were hopeful that he’d assist in reopening the island to visitors. Instead, he made the Monument area nearly 400% larger and it remains closed to the public.

    The creation of the monument has done less than nothing for the history and preservation of Midway. It actually helped the USFWS to believe they should continue on the path which Midway is on which deconstructs its history. They have miss-managed historical resources, as confirmed by a GAO Audit, in April of 2015. Buildings / structures that could have been used to support an Affordable Visitor Program have been deselected from maintenance plans, then ignored until they become Safety or Hazmat Hazards, then demolished with superfund environmental cleanup funds. Many of us have referred to this as ‘Demolition by Neglect’. Since 1996, Midway has always had a Wildlife Refuge Manager but has never had a National Memorial Manager.

    In 2003, Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., Tennessee Republican said, “Having a wildlife refuge or a national memorial that only bureaucrats can visit does not make a whole lot of sense”. It’s now 14 years later and the door to this National Memorial is still closed.

    At a November of 2014 Oversight Hearing, entitled “Is the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge Being Properly Managed?”, Committee Chairman (Congressman John Fleming, M.D.) concluded with this statement;
    “The FWS has a failing grade for achieving public visitation to Midway and for allowing Midway’s historic structures to deteriorate. It was a mistake to make Midway Islands a Wildlife Refuge” and went on to say that the USFWS has no interest, expertise or desire in the National Memorial.

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