Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and author of Pristine Seas: Journeys to the Ocean’s Last Wild Places.
The first time I jumped in the water at Kingman Reef I felt like I was in a time machine, traveling back to an era before humans began over-exploiting the ocean. As soon as the bubbles cleared, I saw a dozen reef sharks swimming around, checking me out with evident curiosity. I may have been the first human they had seen in their lives. Looking down I saw a baroque and healthy coral garden. It was like nothing I had seen in my previous life as a marine ecologist.
Kingman Reef and neighboring Palmyra Atoll are two tiny specks of land surrounded by untouched coral reefs, a thousand miles south of Hawaii. These reefs turned our understanding of coral reefs upside down. There we discovered that in a pristine reef, predators can outweigh their prey—on an African plain, that would mean more lions than zebras.
Belonging to the United States—and making up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument—the waters around Kingman, Palmyra, and the rest of the Northern Line Islands are protected from fishing and drilling. President George W. Bush created the monument in 2009, and President Barack Obama expanded it in 2014, making it the third largest protected area in the ocean.
Now this extraordinary monument is at risk. Ryan Zinke, the secretary of interior, is reviewing this and 20 other national monuments on land and at sea in response to an executive order by President Donald Trump. Mr. Zinke has indicated interest in opening some monuments to drilling, and a special interest group is lobbying to open the marine monuments to industrial fishing.
Mr. Zinke’s review to the president is due this week, on August 24. Mr. Zinke professes admiration for Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Antiquities Act of 1906 to allow presidents (including himself) to create national monuments. If Mr. Zinke wants to emulate Roosevelt’s legacy, he should recommend leaving the national monuments as they are.
And so believe more than three million Americans who have submitted comments to the administration. According to a recent analysis, 99 percent of those comments are in favor of keeping the monuments as they are.
Opponents of the monuments argue that they are too large, are not supported by local communities, and will harm the fishing industry. But the facts do not support these claims.
Our marine monuments are already smaller in size than scientists recommend—a concession to the fishing industry. Life in these monuments creates a giant cycle of energy running from the deep to the waves to the land and back. Tuna chase small fish from below, pushing them to the surface where they are picked up by seabirds. The seabirds fly hundreds of miles to the islands where they nest and feed their chicks. When those chicks attempt to fly, some will fall to the sea to be eaten by tiger sharks, returning to the depths, where the cycle began. Marine monuments need to be large because the ecosystems they protect are large.
All marine monuments were created after several rounds of consultations and public hall meetings, and received widespread public support. The boundaries of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on the northwest Hawaiian Islands, for example, allow the continuation of traditional fishing by local fishers. And the Pacific Remote Islands are uninhabited, so there are no local communities to claim any traditional use.
The monuments also have a record of helping, not harming, the fishing industry. Studies from no-take marine reserves around the world show that marine life comes back spectacularly within their boundaries, and that nearby fishing improves because fish spill over the reserve boundaries. A study published on August 9 also indicates that marine reserves can increase fisheries’ yields better than traditional fishing controls alone. The tuna fishing lobby in Hawaii fought the expansion of the marine monuments, but in 2016 it took the longline fleet only a few months to catch their quota for the year.
The sheer abundance of large animals I saw at Kingman and Palmyra was exceptional. Less than 2 percent of the ocean is protected from exploitation, so few places have been saved from industrial depletion. Our national monuments are havens for marine life, serve as extraordinary scientific laboratories, and provide assurance for Americans and world citizens that the ocean will continue to provide for us.
As President Roosevelt once said, “Of all the questions which can come before this nation … there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”
President Trump should leave our national monuments as they are, for the benefit of all Americans.