Papahānaumokuākea is a vast and isolated linear cluster of small, low lying islands and atolls, with their surrounding ocean, roughly 250 km to the northwest of the main Hawaiian Archipelago and extending over some 1931 km. The area has deep cosmological and traditional significance for living Native Hawaiian culture, as an ancestral environment, as an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world, and as the place where it is believed that life originates and to where the spirits return after death. On two of the islands, Nihoa and Makumanamana, there are archaeological remains relating to pre-European settlement and use. Much of the monument is made up of pelagic and deepwater habitats, with notable features such as seamounts and submerged banks, extensive coral reefs and lagoons. It is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPAs) in the world.
Nesting Great Frigatebirds (
© Sue Watt
Outstanding Universal Value
Papahānaumokuākea is the name given to a vast and isolated linear cluster of small, low lying islands and atolls, with their surrounding ocean, extending some 1,931 kilometres to the north west of the main Hawaiian Archipelago, located in the north-central Pacific Ocean. The property comprises the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which extends almost 2000 km from southeast to northwest.
The property includes a significant portion of the Hawai’i-Emperor hotspot trail, constituting an outstanding example of island hotspot progression. Much of the property is made up of pelagic and deepwater habitats, with notable features such as seamounts and submerged banks, extensive coral reefs, lagoons and 14 km2 emergent lands distributed between a number of eroded high islands, pinnacles, atoll islands and cays. With a total area of around 362,075 km2 it is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. The geomorphological history and isolation of the archipelago have led to the development of an extraordinary range of habitats and features, including an extremely high degree of endemism. Largely as a result of its isolation, marine ecosystems and ecological processes are virtually intact, leading to exceptional biomass accumulated in large apex predators. Island environments have, however, been altered through human use, and although some change is irreversible there are also examples of successful restoration. The area is host to numerous endangered or threatened species, both terrestrial and marine, some of which depend solely on Papahānaumokuākea for their survival.
The pristine natural heritage of the area has deep cosmological and traditional significance for living Native Hawaiian culture, as an ancestral environment, as an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world, and as the place where it is believed that life originates and where the spirits return to after death.
On two of the islands, Nihoa and Makumanamana, there are archaeological remains relating to pre-European settlement and use, including a large ensemble of shrines, heiau, of a type specific to Papahānaumokuākea, but which resemble those of inland Tahiti. These, together with the sites of stone figures that show a strong relationship to similar carvings in the Marquesas, can be said to contribute to an understanding of Hawaiians strong cultural affiliation with Tahiti and the Marquesas.
Criterion (iii): The well preserved heiau shrines on Nihoa and Mokumanamana, and their associated still living traditions are both distinctive to Hawai’i but, positioned within a wider 3,000 year old Pacific/Polynesian marae-ahu cultural continuum, they can be seen as an exceptional testimony to the strong cultural affiliation between Hawai’i, Tahiti and the Marquesas, resulting from long periods of migration.
Criterion (vi): The vibrant and persistent beliefs associated with Papahānaumokuākea are of outstanding significance as a key element in Pacific socio-cultural evolutionary patterns of beliefs and provide a profound understanding of the key roles that ancient marae-ahu, such as those found in Raiatea, the ‘centre’ of Polynesia, once fulfilled. These living traditions of the Hawaiians that celebrate the natural abundance of Papahānaumokuākea and its association with sacred realms of life and death, are directly and tangibly associated with the heiau shrines of Nihoa and Mokumanamana and the pristine islands beyond to the north-west.
Criterion (viii): The property provides an illustrating example of island hotspot progression, formed as a result of a relatively stationary hotspot and stable tectonic plate movement. Comprising a major portion of the world’s longest and oldest volcanic chain, the scale, distinctness and linearity of the manifestation of these geological processes in Papahānaumokuākea are unrivalled and have shaped our understanding of plate tectonics and hotspots. The geological values of the property are directly connected to the values in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and World Heritage property and jointly present a very significant testimony of hotspot volcanism.
Criterion (ix): The large area of the property encompasses a multitude of habitats, ranging from 4,600 m below sea level to 275 m above sea level, including abyssal areas, seamounts and submerged banks, coral reefs, shallow lagoons, littoral shores, dunes, dry grasslands and shrublands and a hypersaline lake. The size of the archipelago, its biogeographic isolation as well as the distance between islands and atolls has led to distinct and varied habitat types and species assemblages. Papahānaumokuākea constitutes a remarkable example of ongoing evolutionary and bio-geographical processes, as illustrated by its exceptional ecosystems, speciation from single ancestral species, species assemblages and very high degree of marine and terrestrial endemism. For example, a quarter of the nearly 7,000 presently known marine species in the area are endemic. Over a fifth of the fish species are unique to the archipelago while coral species endemism is over 40%. As many species and habitats remain to be studied in detail these numbers are likely to rise. Because of its isolation, scale and high degree of protection the property provides an unrivalled example of reef ecosystems which are still dominated by top predators such as sharks, a feature lost from most other island environments due to human activity.
Criterion (x): The terrestrial and marine habitats of Papahānaumokuākea are crucial for the survival of many endangered or vulnerable species the distributions of which are highly or entirely restricted to the area. This includes the critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal, four endemic bird species (Laysan Duck, Laysan Finch, Nihoa Finch and Nihoa Millerbird, and six species of endangered plants such as the Fan Palm. Papahānaumokuākea is a vital feeding, nesting, and nursery habitat for many other species, including seabirds, sea turtles and cetaceans. With 5.5 million sea birds nesting in the monument every year and 14 million residing in it seasonally it is collectively the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world, and includes 99% of the world’s Laysan Albatross (vulnerable) and 98% of the world’s Black-footed Albatross (endangered). Despite relatively low species diversity compared to many other coral reef environments, the property is thus of very high in situ biodiversity conservation value.
The boundaries of the property are all located in the ocean, but nevertheless have been clearly defined, demarcated on navigational charts and communicated widely. The large size of the property ensures inclusion of a wide variety of habitat types, including a highly significant area of marginal reef environment as well as submerged banks and deepwater habitat. It also ensures a high degree of replication of habitat type. Although past use has altered some terrestrial environments the property is still predominantly in a natural state: its nature conservation status is exceptional. This is largely due to its isolation as well as a combination of management and protection efforts, some dating back more than 100 years, including national natural resource protection legislation as well as internationally adopted restrictions. The integrity of the property and its ecological processes are in excess of most other island archipelagos and most other tropical marine environments in the world.
All the cultural attributes that reflect Outstanding Universal Value are within the boundaries of the property. The archaeological sites remain relatively undisturbed by cultural factors. Although none of the attributes are under severe threat, some of the archaeological sites need further conservation and protection against damage from plants and wildlife.
The unique arrangement of the collections of shrines of Mokumanamana and Nihoa islands need to be read in detail for their sacred and religious associations, linked to other similar sites across the Pacific. The strong spiritual religious associations of Mokumanamana island are living and relevant. Damage due to natural processes of decay, and disturbance by wildlife could also disturb their layout and ability to display clearly their meaning.
Protection and management requirements
Papahānaumokuākea is a highly protected area established through Presidential Proclamation in 2009, which adds to pre-existing state, federal and international legal mandates. The multiple layers of Federal and State legislation and regulation protect Papahānaumokuākea’s natural heritage and also its cultural heritage: both monuments and landscape. The property was declared a Marine National Monument under the national Antiquities Act, and is further protected by other national legislation including as the National Historic Protection Act, Historic Sites Act, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. There are also traditional Native Hawaiian protocols protecting the property’s physical and intangible cultural heritage.
The multiple jurisdictions have created a complex institutional environment for management of the property, but management planning and intervention practices are appropriate. The three management Agencies for the property are the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. There is a need to establish and maintain effective natural, archaeological and cultural heritage skills in managing the property. An archaeologist/cultural heritage specialist is required for the property, to complement the management of its natural values. The multiple jurisdictions have created a complex institutional environment for management of the property, but management planning and intervention practices are well conceived. In view of the threats facing the property, well-governed multi-agency involvement and participation is a strength, provided the complexity does not compromise operational capacities and the ability to quickly respond to challenges. It is a particular strength in relation to addressing the threats to the property that originate beyond its boundaries.
A Monument Protection Plan has been drawn up by key stakeholders, which will act as the guiding document for the property over the next 15 years. This includes strategic objectives and detailed thematic action plans that address priority needs. It is important that these efforts are sustained with the aim to increase streamlining, including to achieve more effective mechanisms for stakeholder participation and outreach. There is a need to ensure that the management system achieves effective, equitable and integrated management that protects and conserves both the cultural attributes and natural features of the property that are the basis for its Outstanding Universal Value.
Threats to the natural values of the property emanating outside its boundaries include marine litter, hazardous cargo, future exploration and mining, military operations, Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, commercial fishing, anchor damage, vessel strikes and Invasive Alien Species.
A key issue in relation to threats to cultural attributes is the need to ensure archaeological sites are not disturbed by burrowing animals or plants, and that monitoring indicators address the impact of natural processes on the archaeological resources. There is also a need for management to be underpinned by clear documentation of the physical cultural resource, based on the outcomes of the current archaeological investigations.
Polynesian voyagers arrived in the isolated Hawaiian Archipelago around 300 AD as part of the great migration around the Pacific that started perhaps around 3,000 years ago from south-east Asia, reached Polynesia by around 200 BC, and then spread across the rest of the Pacific over the next two millennia. The voyagers found the larger islands in what is now Hawaii to have fertile soils, abundant water, and reefs rich with marine life.
The settlers mainly inhabited the main islands to the south-east of the Archipelago, but there is evidence of human use in two within Papahānaumokuākea: Mokumanamana and Nihoa.
The sites in the two islands have been the subject of only limited archaeological investigation and there are still major gaps in knowledge.
The earliest studies, undertaken by the Tanager Expedition in 1923-24, completely excavated a number of small caves/rock shelters, partly-excavated some open-air sites and removed human skeletal material found in small niches in the cliffs on Nihoa, as well as two human femurs and a tibia revealed by excavation of a rock shelter on Mokumanamana. All the human bone as well as all cultural material retrieved from the excavations and from surface sites were returned to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The human skeletal remains have recently been repatriated to the islands by Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners. In addition to completely stripping all sediments observed in cave/rock shelter sites, the Tanager excavations contributed to the destabilization of sections of dry-stone walling on the islands. This and several earlier non-scientific expeditions to the islands also removed a number of small and highly-distinctive carved stone statues and other artefacts from the surface of Mokumanamana. Some of the images are in Bishop Museum but others appear to have been lost.
Recorded human visitation to the two islands has been minimal since the Tanager Expedition, as the islands were part of the Hawaiian Islands Reservation declared in 1909. Access has effectively been limited to shortterm biological surveys, intermittent low-impact archaeological studies and occasional visits by Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners.
Two archaeologists, one a Native Hawaiian doctoral candidate and the other the US Fish and Wildlife Service archaeologist responsible for the property, were left on Mokumanamana during the ICOMOS mission to continue the former's PhD project there. It is likely that this research will go a considerable way to filling the remaining major gaps in knowledge of Nihoa and Mokumanamana.
Although little archaeological research has been done elsewhere in Papahānaumokuākea, (the sum total of archaeological work in the whole areas over eighty years apparently only comes to 18 days), the ICOMOS mission confirmed that any obvious signs of pre-European use would have been easily detected by trained professionals. Moreover, palaeoenvironmental investigations conducted on Laysan Atoll by archaeologists amongst other specialists failed to reveal any sign of pre-European human activity in a sediment core dating back some 7,000 years, more than twice as long as people have been anywhere in remote Oceania and more than four times the length of time people are known to have been in the main Hawaiian islands. Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) were present on Kure until recently but have been exterminated to protect ground-nesting birds whose eggs are highly vulnerable to rat predation. These rats are a commensal species introduced to the remote Pacific by the first human colonists millennia ago and are today carried around on ships along with European rats (although not to the Marine National Monument, as all visiting vessels are subject to strict mandatory rat-control measures). It is not known whether R. exulans was introduced to Kure in the European or pre-European period, but the species is absent from the rest of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and is not known to have occurred anywhere in Papahānaumokuākea at the time of European contact. However, the absence of commensal rats does not mean early Polynesians did not visit the more remote north-western islands, as there is no evidence they were ever present on Nihoa or Mokumanamana, where pre- European human occupation is undoubted.
When Europeans arrived in Hawaii in the late 18th century they found a thriving society with distinctive and complex social and religious systems. In 1898 Hawaii was acquired by the United States thorough the ‘Newlands Resolution'.
Starting in the 1960s and 70s a resistance movement begin to develop against Western assimilation. This led to a renaissance of Hawaiian culture and the strengthening of bonds with sacred places.
A large body of information on oral history has been published over around a hundred years in local newspapers (e.g., Kaunamano 1862 in Hōkǖ o ka Pakipika; Manu 1899 in Ka Loea Kalai‘āina; Wise 1924 in Nūpepa Kuoko‘a). More recent ethnological studies (2003) highlight the continuity of Native Hawaiian traditional practices and histories in the North-western Hawaiian Islands. Only a fraction of these have been recorded, and many more exist in the memories and life histories of kupuna. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation