Delegates to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in Brasilia agreed to inscribe Papahanaumokuakea (pronounced Papa-HA-now-mo-ku-AH-ke-ah) Marine National Monument as one of only 26 mixed natural and cultural World Heritage Sites in the world and the only one in the United States.
Papahanaumokuakea is a line of small, low lying islands and atolls, with their surrounding ocean, 155 miles to the northwest of the main Hawaiian archipelago and extending over some 1,200 miles from end to end. It covers an area of nearly 140,000 square miles.
The area has deep cosmological and traditional significance for living Native Hawaiian culture, as an ancestral environment, as an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world, and as the place where it is believed that life originates and spirits return after death.
Hawaiian monk seal in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (Photo by James Watt courtesy NOAA)
On two of the islands, Nihoa and Makumanamana, there are archaeological remains from pre-European settlement and use.
It is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world with features such as seamounts, submerged banks and lagoons. The monument contains about 70 percent of the coral reefs in U.S. territory and is inhabited by endangered monk seals and 7,000 marine species, a quarter of which are found only in Hawaii. The entire area is off-limits to fishing.
"UNESCO's designation of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as a World Heritage Site confirms what the people of Hawaii have known for generations about this exceptional environmental and cultural treasure," said Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle.
"The journey to achieve World Heritage Status involved an immense commitment on the part of many environmental, cultural, community and native Hawaiian organizations, working closely with the state and federal government," she said.
In September 2005, after a three-year public process that resulted in more than 25,000 public comments, Governor Lingle established a State Marine Refuge in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that set aside all state waters as a limited access, no-take marine protected area.
This created the largest marine conservation area in the history of the state, protecting 1,026 square miles of coral reefs from the shoreline to three miles offshore.
The Lingle administration then worked with the federal government to ensure similar protections at the national level, which resulted in President George W. Bush's designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine national monument in June 2006.
Researchers explore the underwater ecosystem of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
In January 2009, during the last month of his presidency, Bush announced the nomination of Papahanaumokuakea as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its unique geology, ecology, biology, Native Hawaiian cultural heritage, and its significance to the world.
Inscription of this remote oceanic expanse on the World Heritage List is the first U.S. nomination of a site in 15 years. It is the first site designated with cultural connections to the sea, and adds to under-represented World Heritage sites from the Pacific. It is the first marine site in the United States, and the world's first cultural seascape.
"Inscription confirms what we feel in our hearts every day," said Susan White, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Superintendent for the monument. "We thank the UNESCO delegates for their recognition that Papahanaumokuakea is a profoundly wonderful place for wildlife, for our host culture, and now for humanity. As a nation, we've solidified our promise to the world that we will continue to protect it."
Modern Hawaiian wayfinders - non-instrument navigators - still voyage to Papahanaumokuakea for navigational training on traditional double-hulled sailing canoes. World Heritage status places this traditional skill, which was used to navigate across the world's largest ocean, onto the world stage.
"This inscription, a first natural and cultural inscription for Hawaii, and a first inscription in 15 years for the United States, elevates Hawaii in the eyes of the world and underscores our responsibility to protect our culturally, naturally and spiritually significant places for future generations, as our ancestors would want," said Haunani Apoliona, who chairs the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees.
Reef fish and corals in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (Photo by James Watt courtesy NOAA)
The near pristine remote reefs, islands, and waters of Papahanaumokuakea are one of the last predator-dominated coral reef ecosystems on the planet. Sharks and jacks dominate the underwater ecosystem. The region provides critical nesting and foraging grounds for 14 million seabirds, making it the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world.
Papahanaumokuakea is cooperatively managed by the Department of Commerce through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, the Department of the Interior, and state of Hawaii - joined by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Aulani Wilhelm, NOAA superintendent for the monument, said, "We hope Papahanaumokuakea's inscription will help expand the global view of culture and the contributions of oceanic peoples to World Heritage and underscore that for so many indigenous peoples, nature and culture are one," she said.
World Heritage designation does not change the monument's cooperative federal-state management mission, plan or structure, nor does it impose, change or add regulations or restrictions.
The monument's management philosophy and regulations have always been designed to "bring the place to the people" through education, virtual exposure, and extremely limited visitation.
Although inscription has increased tourism at other World Heritage sites, for Papahanaumokuakea, all human access and activity will remain by permit only, with visitation by the public restricted to Midway Atoll under strict carrying-capacity guidelines.
Papahanaumokuakea is the second World Heritage Site in the state; Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was inscribed in 1987.
UNESCO's World Heritage List protects and preserves natural and cultural heritage sites of "outstanding universal value" as determined by the standards and process established under the World Heritage Convention, the most widely adopted international agreement for the conservation of nature and preservation of culture.
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