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Potential National Maritime Sanctuary in “Remote Islands” Recalls the History of the United States in the Pacific

The Pacific

The recent announcement by the Biden administration proposing an expansion and renaming of the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument highlights the long history of the United States in the Pacific Ocean. The islands which make up the monument stand as relics to many important chapters in the story of the country and the region. By protecting these islands and waters, the story can continue for future generations.

In March 2023, the White House announced plans to designate the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument (PRINM) a National Maritime Sanctuary. This designation would expand ecological protections in the monument to cover all surface and subsurface geographical features, including the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) limit of US sovereignty. The PRINM is a protected area established by the US government to conserve and protect the unique marine and land ecosystems of several remote Pacific islands, atolls, and reefs.

In this announcement, President Biden directed Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to immediately consider initiating a new National Marine Sanctuary designation around this collection of remote islands. This would significantly limit commercial fishing and deep-sea mining in the protected areas and further the administration’s goal of conserving at least 30% of US ocean waters by 2030.

Established on January 6, 2009, by a proclamation issued by President George W. Bush under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906, the monument initially encompassed approximately 490,000 square miles (1.27 million km2) in the central and western Pacific Ocean. In 2014, President Barack Obama expanded the monument to include additional areas, enlarging its size to 782,000 square miles (2.03 million km2).

The PRINM is currently managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is renowned for its exceptional biodiversity. It serves as a vital habitat for numerous species, including coral reefs, fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and endangered species such as the Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtles. The monument's establishment aims to protect and preserve these diverse ecosystems and their associated species.

While the monument contains 55 islands, atolls, and reefs, many barely break the surface of the water. Seven islands form most of the monument’s land mass. While each island has a unique history, the amalgamation of their stories weaves a thorough narrative of the role the United States has played in the Pacific for the last 200 years. Most of these uninhabited islands were sighted by European explorers or whalers in the 18th and early 19th centuries before being claimed by the United States under the Guano Islands Act, a 1856 law that enabled the United States to take possession of unclaimed islands containing guano deposits, which were prized as a source of saltpeter for gunpowder as well as an agricultural fertilizer.

Here is a list of the seven islands and their relationship with the United States:

  1. Baker Island (2.1 km2), originally called “New Nantucket” due to its discovery by whalers, is located about halfway between Hawaiʻi and Australia. Used for guano mining, the island was also part of the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project, a 1935 plan by the Department of Commerce to place citizens of the United States on uninhabited islands in the central Pacific Ocean. These were primarily young native Hawaiian men remembered as the Hui Panalā`au. The government hoped the settlers would man weather stations and landing fields on air routes to Australia and check Japanese expansion in the region. The project was abandoned in 1942.
  2. Howland Island (2.6 km2) is about 68 kilometers northwest of Baker Island. While it bears some evidence of temporary Polynesian inhabitation, it was sighted by Europeans in the 18th century and named multiple times by various whaling ships before getting its current name in 1842. Claimed by the United States after the Guano Islands Act, guano was mined on the island until 1878. It was enroute to the airfield on Howland Island that Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937 while attempting a round-the-world flight.
  3. Jarvis Island (5 km), about 2,400 km south of Honolulu, was likely never inhabited by Polynesians due to the lack of fresh water. It was also part of both guano mining and the colonization project.
  4. Johnston Atoll (5 km2), about 1,300 km southwest of Honolulu was discovered in 1807 and claimed by the United States in 1858 under the Guano Islands Act. During World War II, the atoll served as an important air base. It continued to be used for somewhat controversial military purposes during the Cold War, primarily for missile testing and as a chemical weapons disposal site. In 2003, the military operations ceased, and Johnston Atoll was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
  5. Kingman Reef (5 km2), a reef in the North Pacific Ocean is located about halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa. No significant guano deposits were discovered here although it was still claimed under those auspices.
  6. Palmyra Atoll (3.9km2), also located about halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa was claimed by the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi before its annexation in 1898. It was also an important naval base in the Second World War. Unlike most of these islands, it is open to limited public tourism and is popular for its scuba diving opportunities.
  7. Wake Island (7.4 km2), about 3,700 km west of Hawaii, and annexed in 1899, is primarily remembered for its role in the opening stages of the Second World War. In December 1941 about 500 US Marines and sailors and about 1000 civilians defended the island from Japanese invasion. Although unsuccessful, the defiant stand of these troops was a symbol of American resilience during the war.

In addition to ecological protections, the memorandum proposes beginning a collaborative process with Indigenous language experts, Native Hawaiian organizations, and other “representatives from Indigenous Peoples with ancestral, historical, and cultural connections to the region.” This process would seek to rename not only the monument and incorporated maritime refuges, but also the geological features, including islands, that are incorporated within it. Given that many of these landforms have historical ties to Polynesia that predate US control of them, the plan also calls for a 2-year study to identify other ways to recognize both Pacific Island voyagers and the Hui Panalā‘au as well as honor local cultural traditions.

The plan is not universally well-regarded. Representatives from Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa have claimed that the proposed maritime sanctuary would be an economic burden on the fishing industries in both territories. However, critics argue that fishing fleets from these islands rarely visit these waters.

Supporters of the president’s announcement believe that by drastically reducing the damage of commercial activity to these protected areas, the US can fulfill its responsibility for reducing unsustainable overfishing and other resource extraction, and potentially limit the “devastating and pervasive marine effects of climate change.”

Josh Downes is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student in the M.S. in Foreign Service and M.A. in Global, International, and Comparative History programs at Georgetown University.