The Refuge System’s Best Kept Secret
While national wildlife refuges are usually recognized as havens for migratory birds and imperiled wildlife, few people realize that refuges also protect significant marine wildlife habitat, including most of our nation’s coral reefs.
Marine National Monuments
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) manages four vast marine national monuments containing over 380,000 acres as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. These refuges protect large stretches of the Pacific Ocean and provide habitat for millions of seabirds, deep-sea corals, sea turtles and endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal.
- Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
- Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
- Rose Atoll Marine National Monument
- Marianas Trench Marine National Monument
Expanded Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
In a huge victory for conservation, the Obama administration recently announced the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument now covers approximately 490,000 square miles in the south-central Pacific Ocean and is home to some of the most pristine and biodiverse waters in the world. Three national wildlife refuges are included in this expansion, they are: Wake Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge. The expanded National Monument protects the waters surrounding the refuges 200 nautical miles from land of these three refuges.
The proclamation bans commercial fishing and other resource extraction activities, such as deep-sea mining. Sustainable recreational and traditional fishing will still be allowed.
The expanded Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is of global and regional ecological importance for large predatory fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. An estimated 14 million seabirds representing 19 species use these areas as feeding and breeding grounds. Five species of protected sea turtles, including the critically endangered leatherback, and 22 species of protected marine mammals use these waters as migratory routes and feeding grounds. Also, remarkably rich coral ecosystems would be protected.
While we are overjoyed that the monument has been expanded, we must not forget that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will need additional resources to manage this increase of jurisdiction. Other Pacific monuments created by the Bush Administration in 2006 and 2009 came with no additional resources for management. And on top of the added management responsibilities, the Refuge System has been rewarded with a nearly 20% cut in funding since FY 2010. We hope that the President will request additional resources for the Refuge System in his FY 2016 budget request that acknowledges this area’s great importance – not just to Americans but to the world.
We must do our part to protect the ocean. The Obama Administration’s announcement to expand protection of U.S. waters in the Pacific Ocean is a major step in the right direction. Also, a large thank you to everyone who signed our letter through the Action Network in support of this expansion.
In all, refuges encompass about 3 million acres of coral reef habitat in the Pacific, Caribbean and off of Florida’s coast. These refuges shelter more than 7,000 types of animals.
In fact, the Refuge System protects more reef habitat than any other federal agency. Of the 555 national wildlife refuges, 13 include coral reefs. Of those, 10 reefs are in the Pacific and include more than 2 million acres. The three refuges in the Caribbean and off Florida’s coast contain a total of 756,000 acres.
The Service manages refuge coral reefs and their inhabitants through habitat restoration, marine zoning, education, research and monitoring. Yet because the Refuge System is massively underfunded, the Service does not have enough staff and resources to ensure that reefs are adequately protected against the many threats to their long-term health.
What can we do to protect coral reefs?
- Support marine wildlife conservation. Funding shortages and unmet research, management and law enforcement needs threaten our marine refuges. Urge decision-makers to support funding and authorization for refuge coral reefs.
- Pass comprehensive climate change legislation. By investing in alternatives to fossil fuels, and adopting energy conservation measures, we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release to the atmosphere. These steps will help lessen the effects of global warming, a serious threat to our coral reefs. Check our Action website to learn more.
- Change our behavior. To protect coral reefs, stop using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that might drain into waterways that end up in the ocean. When shopping for an aquarium, only buy coral that has been grown in an aquarium and not harvested from the ocean. When diving, don’t touch coral and other reef wildlife. Be sure to recycle, so that waste won’t end up in the ocean. When visiting the beach, pick up trash to keep it from getting swept out into the sea.