Photo: American Samoa Superintendent Atuatasi Lelei Peau at a public scoping meeting in American Samoa
American Samoa Superintendent Atuatasi Lelei Peau at a public scoping meeting in American Samoa regarding proposed sanctuary status for the Pacific Remote Islands. - Courtesy Photo

By Hoku Cody

The Pacific Remote Islands (PRI) serve as the nexus of cross-cultural voyaging pathways for the entire Pacific. They likewise are an intersection of climate change mitigation, cultural practice, and scientific discovery. With the current PRI sanctuary designation underway, we have a unique opportunity to see a new day for conservation, and for Oceania.

With the world’s oceans at a breaking point, environmental degradations like marine pollution and unsustainable resource extraction will escalate the impacts of climate change inundating Pacific Island communities. It is time to acknowledge our responsibility and privilege to steward this critical ocean vestige that connects, sustains, protects, and holds us all as Pacific Islanders.

The PRI sanctuary designation would create an additional layer of protection across the entire area, including the two units currently unprotected within the PRI Exclusive Economic Zone.

Similar in intent to that of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the PRI sanctuary designation is considering a decision-making process that includes Pacific Island Indigenous voices to be part of a co-management structure.

One significant advantage of National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) designations is their flexibility in accommodating multiple uses within designated areas and incorporating community input directly into the designation process, which would inform the drafting of its management plan.

Thus, in April 2023, after placing the nomination into the federal registry, NOAA opened a 45-day public comment scoping period for input regarding the PRI Sanctuary nomination.

Photo: Community meeting in Saipan
Engaging remote Pacific Island communities that will be impacted by PRI sanctuary designation is critical to the process. Pictured here is a community meeting in Saipan. – Courtesy Photo

The PRI Coalition joined the public scoping meetings to listen first-hand to Hawaiʻi, American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands community members about this proposal. There were many lively discussions, meaningful engagements, and differing opinions yet a unifying remembrance that we are all Pacific Islanders.

In Hilo, a university student declared their support for the vision of the PRI sanctuary as a place to practice traditional voyaging. Safeguarding the practice of traditional wayfinding through preserving biodiversity, maintaining healthy ecosystems, and encouraging sustainable practices such as traditional navigation techniques, low-impact fishing methods, and responsible waste management will also protect these fragile ecosystems and unique cultural knowledge systems from further degradation.

An American Samoa elder agreed that the large-scale industrial fishing industry is unsustainable. It was a meaningful testimony that spoke to the long-term impacts of overfishing, bycatch, and habitat destruction with severe ecological consequences in his lifetime. It was evident in his voice there was an uncertainty about how to adequately address all the environmental and socio-economic concerns that shroud our path should some of these practices continue.

A member of the Nature Conservancy expressed support at the Honolulu scoping meeting because she believes in establishing a co-management structure.

Community members in Rota and Tinian (part of the Northern Mariana Islands) were preparing for typhoon Mawar as they shared their thoughts in a robust discussion about management, enforcement, and inclusion of smaller island communities.

And a long-time native fisherman in Guåhan (Guam) praised the PRI Coalition’s vision to use ancestral knowledge with conservation science to counter the climate crisis.

By integrating Pacific voices into management decisions, NMS can balance conservation objectives, economic interests, Indigenous values and practices, and community partnerships to ensure vitality for the Pacific.

Cultural diversity and community input can be incorporated into scientific research and policymaking with more opportunity to develop effective solutions towards sustainable practices, regulations, comprehensive environmental impact assessments, considerations of alternative approaches to economic development, and implementing robust regulations and monitoring systems.

In today’s globalized world, where physical distances are easily bridged by technology, PRI can play a vital role in fostering intercultural understanding and cooperation and especially pathways for community partnerships across the Pacific in the spirit of taking care of PRI.

And much like large-scale marine protected areas can provide safe havens where fish populations can recover and replenish, PRI can be a safe haven for conversations, structures, places, and initiatives that cultivate, and support cultural revitalization and Indigenous conservation.

In this way, the Pacific Remote Islands hold precious connections to our past and a promise for our future.

Hoku Cody is a seabird biologist and an ocean protector and advocate who is working to revitalize traditional rights within Hawaiʻi’s natural and cultural resource management industries. She is the Pacific Remote Islands campaign manager for the National Ocean Protection Coalition. The organization creates and supports marine protected areas and is currently working to have the Pacific Remote Islands designated a National Marine Sanctuary.