Happy 13th Birthday to the World's Deepest Protected Area

I first published this blog in 2019 on the 10 year anniversary of the designation of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, and I'm republishing it here in time for the 13 year anniversary, which is tomorrow.  In this essay I am somewhat critical of the design and governance in the designation of the protected area in 2009, and highly critical of the lack of implementation in the first decade of its existence (this caused some heartburn with a well known conservation philanthropist, the story of which I am happy to share over beers).  In the three years since writing this there has been some progress, however, and I must give credit where it is due.  In 2021, the long awaited management plan was put forward for public review, and my hope is that it will be finalized this year.  I am also still hopeful that the even longer awaited for Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary will begin moving forward this year.

That's skinny Angelo at the White House signing ceremony for three marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean with (from left) Ignacio V. Cabrera, Friends of the Mariana Trench chair; Dr. Sylvia Earle, National Geographic explorer in residence; Agnes McPhetres, Friends of the Mariana Trench vice chair; and Jean-Michel Cousteau, French oceanographic explorer.

I’ll never forget the moment 10 years ago when I witnessed the White House signing ceremony for the creation of marine national monuments in the Mariana Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll. At one point during his remarks, President George W. Bush, who two years earlier had designated the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, looked straight into my eyes and gave me a nod as he acknowledged the importance of his administration’s dialogue with the Chamorro and Refaluwasch people, the indigenous residents of the Mariana Islands and longtime stewards of the Mariana Trench.  With a few more strokes of the pen, on that cold January morning President Bush protected more of the planet than any other person had at that point in history.

I was raised on Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean, and have the tattoos to prove it. I’m one of those indigenous people whom President Bush was talking about, and I was joined that day by two other Chamorros, Ignacio V. Cabrera and Agnes McPhetres, and Refaluwasch Governor Benigno R. Fitial.

January 6, 2009, was a day of celebration, the culmination of a nearly two-year campaign by environmental and indigenous activists in the Northern Marianas. In the lead-up to the designation, the Friends of the Mariana Trench hosted 115 public meetings to discuss ocean conservation with the community. I was a founding member of this dedicated group of ocean lovers, and helped to lead an effort to build local support for protecting the waters around some of our isolated uninhabited islands in a proposed marine national monument.

In our community of 50,000 residents, we gathered over 6,000 signatures and 500 letters in support of a large marine reserve and earned the backing of environmental organizations, businesses, and the majority of local citizens, including nearly all of our elected officials.

Most people hear about these protected areas only when they are created—or, sadly, when they are being proposed for elimination. But conservation doesn’t end with designation. This 10-year anniversary presents an opportunity to look back at the decade since the creation of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, the protected area I hold closest to my heart.

The Good
The most important outcome of the designation has been protection of biodiversity. The monument’s Islands Unit—one of three units that make up the site—restricts all commercial fishing but allows some carefully managed recreational, noncommercial, and traditional indigenous fishing. According to a peer-reviewed study published in 2014 in the journal Nature, the most effective marine protected areas (MPAs) are large, no-take, well enforced, isolated, and in place for many years. The Islands Unit meets most of these criteria, and does so without harming American fisheries. In fact, taken together, the four Pacific marine monuments are strong evidence that the U.S. can have both sustainable fisheries and protected habitat.

NOAA discovered this now iconic glowing jellyfish during the Okeanos Explorer missions in 2016.

A second benefit is an increase in scientific research and broader interest in the region. In the past 10 years, academic and government researchers from China, Japan, and the U.S. have used submersibles to explore the Mariana Trench, which includes the deepest known point into the ocean, Challenger Deep, measured at 37,070 feet below sea level. They have discovered the world’s deepest-living fish, airplanes lost during World War II, and otherworldly life forms that look as if they belong in science fiction movies. And in 2012, James Cameron, the filmmaker and deep-sea explorer, became only the third person in history to descend to the bottom ofthe Mariana Trench.

On that January day 10 years ago, President Bush solidified the United States’ global leadership in conservation and inspired other countries to take similar actions. Since then, governments and international bodies have established some of the world’s largest protected areas in the waters of Antarctica, Australia, Brazil, Kiribati, Mexico, Palau, and the United Kingdom. According to the Marine Conservation Institute’s Atlas of Marine Protection, 4.8 percent of the ocean now exists within marine protected areas, a fivefold increase from 2009.

Room for Improvement
Despite these benefits, the Friends of the Mariana Trench believe the wrong government agencies were put in charge of the monument. Before the designation, the group advocated for a site managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. But instead, management authority was assigned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries. Since 2009, the Friends have tirelessly advocated to improve the management of the monument.  Currently, NOAA is considering a nomination to overlay the existing monument with a national marine sanctuary, as was first proposed in 2008.

The primary shortcoming of the monument is that, to date, there have been no monument-related hires in Saipan, and the federal government hasn’t released draft plans for managing the monument.  The island community expected the monument to spark an increase in federal jobs and educational programs on the islands, an expectation linked to the campaign to create the monument and the assumption NOAA Sanctuaries would be the manager.  The response in the community has ranged from disappointment to outright hostility.

Many community members believe that the U.S. government needs to better manage the Pacific marine monuments and boost their funding while ensuring that some of that funding reaches the Northern Mariana Islands. In 2018, the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, which advises the government on MPA management, found that the country’s MPAs “face increasing challenges” and that NOAA should “fully support, maintain, evaluate, and adaptively manage” those areas, including a “transparent and inclusive public planning process.”This perspective is backed by science, as another peer-reviewed study published in 2017 in the journal Nature found the strongest predictors of conservation impact are staff and budget capacity.

This recommendation should apply to the Pacific marine monuments. I hope that the second decade of the Mariana Trench monument sees NOAA overlay the sanctuary within the monument, which would bring NOAA Sanctuaries into the fold of managing the area and increase the funding that reaches communities in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Reason to Hope
The world needs more—and better—marine protections.  As this decade started, the United Nations, through the Convention on Biological Diversity, set an ambitious target of protecting 10 percent of the ocean by 2020. Meeting that goal depends on the definition of “protection,” but the good news is that there’s no argument over the fact that the area set aside for conservation on land and sea has increased exponentially in the past decade.

Today, the International Union for Conservation of Nature recommends protecting 30 percent of every ocean habitat in marine protected areas and conserved areas. But simply designating more of the ocean as protected will ultimately shortchange both the marine environment and the communities that depend on it unless policymakers put in the time and effort to ensure that existing areas, such as the Mariana Trench, are managed effectively.

I’m confident that the leaders of today can act in our—and the planet’s—best interest. In doing so, they would refresh the optimism that I felt a decade ago as I witnessed President Bush signing the marine monument declarations. They also would help secure a healthy, sustainable future for our ocean and my fellow Pacific islanders who are inextricably linked to its fate.


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