Aulani Wilhelm honors wildlife at Papahanaumokuakea Monument

Wilhelm said that in the face of a lot of disheartening climate news, her conservation site offers proof that pristine natural areas still exist, and must be maintained.

Aulani Wilhelm: If Disney and the Lion King can get us to say hakuna matata, I’m convinced the globe can learn to say Papahanaumokuakea.

Aulani Wilhelm is NOAA superintendent for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. It’s a conservation area off the coast of Hawaii named after the symbolic union of two figures in traditional Hawaiian belief – Earth Mother, Papa Hanau Moku, and Uakea, the Sky Father.

Aulani Wilhelm:
That very ancient name is really about continued growth, birthing, and abundance. And that’s what I think human beings everywhere are striving for. I think we come on this planet wanting to be part of something vibrant, something alive.

Wilhelm said that in the face of a lot of disheartening climate news, her conservation site offers proof that pristine natural areas still exist, and must be maintained. She explained that Papahanaumokuakea – an area about half the size of Texas – is teeming with coral reefs, and what she called apex predators. That is, sharks and other predatory fish.

Aulani Wilhelm:
And most coral reefs on Earth have very limited apex predators. They’ve been fished out. In the northwest and Hawaiian islands, they’re robust and they’re healthy, and it’s remarkable when you see these things en masse.

She said it’s good from a biological perspective, because sharks have a regulating impact on the local food chain. But, she added:

Aulani Wilhelm:
From a Hawaiian standpoint, all the animals, all of the plants, are our ancestors, or manifestations of our gods. So when we see a bunch of sharks in an area, that’s really unusual. That’s also an aggregation of our ancestors, of spiritual power. And what we’re trying to do from a management standpoint is really honor all those things. Because the value to our people, the value to our communities, is broad.

Wilhelm also briefly discussed how the presence of large predators is matched by the presence of native, or endemic species in Hawaii.

Aulani Wilhelm: In the marine environment, endemism rates when they reach 25% are striking, and on average, our rates of endemism in the northwest Hawaiian island are 25%. But when you go farther North, farther away, rates go up to 50%. So that means when you go underwater, you encounter fish that are nowhere else on earth!

She asked people to consider the marvel of hundreds of creatures that have, over time, become perfectly behaviorally and physiologically adapted to Papahanaumokuakea. She said this is one reason that the monument makes such an important global contribution in terms of sheer uniqueness.

Wilhelm said that management of Papahanaumokuakea is very strict, which is part of the reason how such uniqueness is maintained. She explained that most threats to the area come from the outside:

Aulani Wilhelm: We have three primary threats: climate change, marine debris, and alien or invasive species. Regarding climate change, I’m referring to the many faces of climate change. Sea surface temperature, increase in the temperature of the ocean, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and extreme weather.

She said that most areas containing coral reefs have to deal with more immediate threats, like pollution and overfishing. In a way, Wilhelm said, Papahanaumokuakea, because it’s so well regulated within its boundaries, is dependent on the rest of the world to be willing to acknowledge and take action to help address global threats like climate change that come from outside.
She said that individuals can help by taking small actions like changing what kind of products you use, buying local and buying wise, and using less gas.

Aulani Wilhelm:
If enough people take those simple actions, it will have a profound effect.

Our thanks today to NOAA Pacific Services Center – linking culture, science, and people to build resilient Pacific Island communities.

Beth Lebwohl