Athline Clark works in a laboratory — a really big one. Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument is, according to its website, “the largest contiguous fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag.” But even with its rigorous protections, findings of coral bleaching from warming seas mean that the preserve isn’t immune to climate change.
The monument encompasses the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, sparsely visited — although Clark’s job as the monument superintendent for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has called her to visit Midway Island now.
Its remoteness is part of its environmental distinctiveness, but there’s also the cultural significance: Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the monument’s designation as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The name Papahanaumokuakea signifies the creation story of the Hawaiian archipelago, stretching from the kupuna (elder) islets and atolls in the northwest to the main islands. This is what caught the attention of UNESCO, Clark said, and why governance involves Native Hawaiian as well as federal agencies.
Part of the job is gatekeeping who enters the monument through a permitting process to protect all its resources, she said: “Everything we do, we do based on considering it both for its biological importance and its cultural importance.”
Clark, 62, was born here so knows the legacy (kamaaina will remember her father, Charles Clark, superintendent of public schools). After graduating from Kailua High School, she went on to study marine science and geography at the University of Hawaii, and continued there to get her master’s in planning. It’s a combination that seems aligned with the job description.
“I have scientists work for me,” Clark said, “and I have policy people who work for me … and what I’m trying to do is take all these pieces and connect the dots.”
Enjoyment of the sea comes easily as part of the mix. While a UH graduate assistant, she had started an outdoor recreation program that still exists, offering students classes including sailing, surfing and kayaking. More recently, she and her husband spent five years plying the seas and living on their 29-foot sailboat.
“I’m just a Hawaii kid,” she said.
Question: How is Papahanaumo- kuakea faring in terms of current federal oversight?
Answer: NOAA is a federal agency, one of two that manages Papahanaumokuakea. The other is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (along with the state of Hawaii and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs). …
Due to the numerous endangered species that nest, rest, breed and have their young in the monument, agencies have been required to care for it under a myriad of federal regulations. Kure Atoll has also been managed by the state of Hawaii since the mid-1990s. It is our mandate to care for these resources for future generations.
Papahanaumokuakea has strong support among the Native Hawaiian community, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs co-manages this site on behalf of their constituency. It is a sacred realm in Hawaiian cosmology.
The Midway National Wildlife Refuge and the Battle of Midway Memorial are reminders of the valor of our military during World War II, and is a place we honor for the sacrifice that changed the course of the war. …
Q: What is the significance of the monument’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site?
A: A World Heritage Site is an area chosen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) representing unique, most significant, or best examples of the world’s cultural and/or natural heritage. The 1972 World Heritage Convention links together the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties.
A World Heritage site is part of an international community of appreciation and concern for universally significant properties important to the collective interests of humanity. …
Q: Could you update us on any findings of the most recent survey of the marine monument that started in May?
A: Hurricane Walaka obliterated the most diverse and biologically rich reefs of French Frigate Shoals (Lalo). What was once a vibrant and ecologically important community is now nothing but rubble.
At Pearl and Hermes Reef (Manawae), an invasive alga was discovered that covers vast areas of the reef structure in parts of the atoll. Researchers who are algae experts did not recognize the species and identification is underway.
Recently, NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Science Center team returned from the monument with reports of bleaching at most of the reefs. This is an archipelago-wide bleaching event, and due to the duration and high surface water temperatures, there is a high probability that there will be mass mortality across the entire Hawaiian chain.
In spite of impacts to shallow reefs from hurricane Walaka and invasive algal outbreaks at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, the deep coral reefs of Papahanaumokuakea appear to be very healthy. They continue to support apex predators such as sharks and giant trevally (Caranx ignobilis, or ulua in Hawaiian). Deep coral reefs continue to yield discoveries that are completely new to science.
Numerous new species of algae were discovered by divers using rebreather technology at deep reefs. Several of the algae likely represent not only new species, but entirely new genera. …
Q: Besides the hurricane, what are other primary effects from climate change on the monument environment and marine populations?
A: It is difficult to point to Hurricane Walaka as a climate-derived event. Climate scientists do predict that the frequency and intensity of storms will increase with global climate change.
The coral bleaching that is occurring across the entire Hawaiian archipelago is a much more direct impact, since the higher sea surface temperatures have been linked to climate change.
Another concern is that as sea level continues to rise it will eventually affect seabirds, green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals, which will have very limited options for habitat to breed. We have already lost three islets at French Frigate Shoals that were primary areas for monk seal breeding, and nesting for sea turtles and seabirds.
Q: Are there any impacts on the monument resulting from activity on the main islands that could be corrected through further steps?
A: The opposite is true. The monument is remote, and relatively undisturbed. It is a natural laboratory that will allow us to learn about species resilience and recovery in a region that is not impacted by human activities.
We can then take what we learn in the monument and apply it to the main Hawaiian Islands. The same is true for many of the cultural resources. There are many sites in Papahanaumokuakea that are minimally disturbed.
Lessons learned from cultural excursions to the monument have been applied in the rebuilding of heiau in the main Hawaiian Islands. We work with communities who learn about their nearshore resources, and take what they have learned from the monument and apply that to resource management in their backyard.
Q: How have the monument’s protections affected commercial fisheries? Have populations recovered enough to have effects on fisheries beyond the monument?
A: There are different types of Marine Protected Areas.
Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument was not necessarily established for the protection of or recovery of commercial fisheries stocks. The islands and atolls of the Monument are home to 14 million nesting seabirds and 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals.
The islands are where 96% of Hawaiian green sea turtles nest. They are on the National Historic Register due to the concentrations of religious, ceremonial and human habitation platforms that exist on Nihoa and Mokumanama Islands. The monument includes more than 100 seamounts, highly biodiverse and rich in marine life.
All of these are reasons that there have been years of protections overlaid on this special place for over 100 years.