Hawaii & Alaska
The public scoping process to grant the PRI sanctuary status is underway. (NOAA)

HI - The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: The Pacific Remote Islands Coalition

The Civil Beat Editorial Board spoke on Wednesday with William Aila, Sol Kaho‘ohalahala and Nai‘a Lewis, members of the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition, which works to protect the cultural, natural and historical legacy of the islands, atolls and reefs of the PRI.

Aila is a former chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Kaho‘ohalahala is a former state legislator now serving as chair of the Maui Nui Makai Network and chair of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Lewis is director of Big Ocean and runs her own Indigenous women-led multimedia collective Salted Logic.

President Joe Biden has proposed creating a new Pacific marine sanctuary that would be one of the largest protected areas on the planet — the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Sanctuary. The public scoping for that proposal began this week in Honolulu and Hilo. To comment online click hereand type in the docket number NOAA-NOS-2023-0052.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity, for recent stories and with an eye on additional stories. The coalition began by describing the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Aila: It is a group of five islands or island groups. So you have Wake, Johnston and Jarvis that are protected out to 200 miles under the monument. And you have Howland, Baker, Kingman Reef and Palmyra, which are protected to 50 miles out. The ask is for them to become protected out to 200 miles and then to have a national marine sanctuary overlay over the monuments.

Are all the islands unpopulated?

Aila: There are people that are stationed at Palmyra right now for research purposes and management purposes.

Describe the coalition of which all three of you are members.

Kahoohalahala: So the coalition really came about from us understanding what we did to help support the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea (Marine National Monument). And then it took a lot of different communities and support and different cultural input into that process. And so we’re familiar with what was involved with that initiative. And then when it came time to now look at the Pacific Remote Islands, it became a natural that we should create an entity much like what we had with Papahanaumokuakea and support that, because it’s still a part of who we are — it’s in our ocean and it has all of the kinds of resources for support that’s needed.

Aila: The coalition is a group of cultural practitioners, fishermen, scientists, moms, dads. So it’s just a group of people that are really interested in protecting these large-scale, marine-protected areas, because we are all at risk and our future generations are at risk. And that’s why we all here worked so hard.

The NOAA process is to designate a new national marine sanctuary. We used to say NWHI for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and now we call it Papahanaumokuakea. What will happen with the acronym PRI?

Kahoohalahala: I think for now one of the things that we do want to do is consider finding an appropriate name for the place, much like we did for the Pacific Northwest Hawaiian Islands. It took us some time in a process that brought us together and then came about with what is now Papahanaumokuakea.

The goal is to to have this new designation. Tell us about the process. The first phase began this week?

Lewis: It’s a component. Unlike creating a monument through the Antiquities Act, which is basically the president can create that with the stroke of his pen, this is a process where the community actually has to create the nomination and formally submit it to the Office of National Marine Sanctuary. It’s going to be a lengthy process. And that public engagement and public comment and those kinds of things, meetings are a part of the process. And we’re in it for the long haul — we know that. And then future elements, future phases of this will be impacted by the outcomes of these meetings and what people have to say.

Help us understand: what is a national marine sanctuary?

Kahoohalahala: For us, our familiarity with the sanctuary is the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. It helps to manage the areas designated in the waters that are within the Hawaiian Islands. And they’re not just one contiguous area in Hawaii. There’s areas off the Big Island of Hawaii. The largest area is between Maui Nui — Lanai, Molokai, and Kahoolawe and Maui. And it helps us to understand that at one time the humpback whales (were) deemed to be part of the endangered species list.

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