The Presidential Power of Marine National Monuments

Coral and Ulua found in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Image: NOAA

Much as our national parks on land are some of our greatest natural treasures, marine national monuments safeguard precious ecosystems and protect them now and for future generations.

  • The National Marine Sanctuary System encompasses more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters, and contains amazing cultural and historical resources, as well as vibrant ecosystems as diverse as coral reefs and kelp forests.

Marine national monuments are designated by presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorizes the president to establish national monuments on federal lands that contain “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

  • In 2000, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were designated as an ecosystem reserve by President Bill Clinton.
  • In 2006, the area was renamed Papahānaumokuākea and was designated as the nation’s first marine national monument by President George W. Bush.
  • President Bush protected nearly 200,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean as conservation areas before leaving office: the Marianas Marine National Monument, the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monument.
  • Subsequently, President Barack Obama supersized Papahānaumokuākea as well as created Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England.

Why This Matters: Through the Antiquities Act, presidents have the power to create vital marine protected areas. Marine monuments also often take less time to create than marine sanctuaries (learn more about the differences here) and will be a needed tool to protect 30% of nature by 2030. One of the stories to watch in the Biden administration will be how the President might use the Antiquities Act to reach his ambitious conservation targets in our oceans.

FYI: Marine protected areas aren’t a one and done conservation win. As Harvard Law School explained:

“Our marine national monuments and marine sanctuaries protect over 1 million square miles of ocean ecosystems, preserve cultural resources, and provide opportunities for recreation and tourism. They are under threat of being reduced in size or opened to commercial fishing and other activities.”

During the Trump administration, our marine national monuments faced existential threats that sought to chip away at their levels of protected status. It’s a reminder that we must work diligently to elect leaders who will support strong conservation targets and work with the rest of the world to meet 30 by 30 goals.

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