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Obama Expands National Marine Monument Off Hawaii Coast


President Obama has just quadrupled the size of a national monument off of Hawaii's coast, making it the world's largest marine protected area. To give you a sense of scale, it's more than twice the size of Texas. President George W. Bush created the monument in 2006.

To say the name of this monument, I'm going to need some help. Professor McCauley, could you say it for us?

DOUGLAS MCCAULEY: Papahanaumokuakea.

MCEVERS: All right. I may or may not be able to say that later. The one who can say it is Professor Douglas McCauley. He's an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara. And you've spent some time there researching, tracking the movement of sharks and predatory animals. Just describe what it looks like both above and under the water.

MCCAULEY: It is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular places on the earth. You get out there, and you put on a mask, and the mask essentially becomes a time machine. You put your head under water, and you're looking at what ocean life looked like on reefs thousands of years ago. It's what Hawaii - the reefs that we see when we go on vacation out there - looked like before we impacted and disturbed this ecosystem.

So you have predators everywhere. We're looking at some of the highest densities of predators on the planet - sharks, jacks, really large grouper.

The world's oldest animal is in Papahanaumokuakea and is now protected. This is a black coral that is believed to live about 4,500 years old, which places it about the same age as the oldest pyramids. And it's truly a special place.

MCEVERS: So what will these new protections do?

MCCAULEY: Particularly, it's important because of climate change. So the really important thing that this expansion, this new monument does, is it provides a safe zone. You have to think of coral reefs as being like a cancer patient that has a broken arm and the flu. If you can at least deal with the broken arm and the flu, maybe this patient can do better at kicking cancer, right?

That's what this protected area is doing. It's helping dealing with the stress that may come from overfishing, from pollution, from invasive species. And so it gives these coral reefs in this place the chance to begin to build some resiliency to the overheating and acidification that's coming down the pipeline from climate change.

MCEVERS: We know that the fishing industry - which is important, of course to Hawaii's economy - is one of the groups that has fought hard against the proposal to expand this protected area. How could this expansion affect commercial fishermen and other industries?

MCCAULEY: Well, fishing is an incredibly important part of Hawaiian culture. It's a really important, nutritious food. My first job before I became a marine biologist was a fisherman. I understand and can't tell you how much I value this industry.

But it's really important to set aside safe zones like this because in the long run, these are real assets for the fishing community. A protected area essentially sets up a safe zone for fish communities to expand, become more abundant, to grow and mature.

And then there's spillover outside of these protected areas that benefits everyone - benefits the fishermen that are catching fish just on the border of these zones.

MCEVERS: I mentioned that President Obama expanded a monument that President George W. Bush had already established a decade ago. What does this expansion do for President Obama's legacy on climate change?

MCCAULEY: It's an amazing legacy. And when was the last time you saw President Bush and President Obama collaborate on something? I think that just tells us what the stakes are for the oceans in the face of climate change, right?

It's a library whose shelves are going to have manta rays and sea turtles. It's a library that archives both the history of Hawaii and is a holding place for what the future of Hawaiian oceans will be.

MCEVERS: Wow. That's Douglas McCauley. He teaches ecology, evolution and marine biology at UC Santa Barbara. And he talked to us about the newly expanded - OK, here we go - Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Did I say that right?

MCCAULEY: Perfectly done.

MCEVERS: Thanks again.

MCCAULEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.