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America’s Forgotten Islands

June 29, 2010

Butterflyfish off of remote Johnston Island (Photo Courtesy USFWS)

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument falls within the Central Pacific Ocean, ranging from Wake Atoll in the northwest to Jarvis Island in the southeast. The seven atolls and islands included within the monument are farther from human population centers than any other U.S. area. They represent one of the last frontiers and havens for wildlife in the world, and comprise the most widespread collection of coral reef, seabird, and shorebird protected areas on the planet under a single nation’s jurisdiction.

At Howland Island, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll, and Kingman Reef, the terrestrial areas, reefs, and waters out to 12 nautical miles (nmi) are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The land areas at Wake and Johnston Atolls remain under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Air Force, but the waters from 0 to 12 nmi are protected as units of the National Wildlife Refuge System. For all of the areas, fishery-related activities seaward from the 12-nmi refuge boundaries out to the 50-nmi monument boundary are managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Map showing the vast Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

These areas represent the last refugia for fish and wildlife species rapidly vanishing from the remainder of the planet, including sea turtles, dolphins, whales, pearl oysters, giant clams, coconut crabs, large groupers, sharks, humphead wrasses, and bumphead parrotfishes. Fish biomass at these islands is remarkable and double that found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and orders of magnitude greater than the reefs near heavily populated islands. Expansive shallow coral reefs and deep coral forests – with some corals up to 5,000 years old – are found here. These small dots of land in the midst of the ocean are vital nesting habitat for millions of seabirds and resting habitat for migratory shorebirds.

This collection of interconnected refuges has over geological and recent history served as key stepping stones for the colonization and dispersal of species between the eastern and western, and the northern and southern Pacific Ocean. Some of these refuges are also unique in that they benefit from localized upwelling from the Equatorial Undercurrent, and others serve as destinations for additional species transported from the western Pacific by the Equatorial Countercurrent.

Emperor angelfish and hump coral off of Howland Island. (Photo Courtesy USFWS, photo credit James Maragos).

All these holdings were uninhabited at the time of their “rediscovery” during the past few centuries and were never occupied for long time periods throughout their entire cultural and geological history. These refuges are unique in that they were and are still largely pristine, though many played important roles in the military and aviation history of our Nation. Only two refuges, Palmyra and Wake Atolls, are accessible by air; the rest require ship access. In some cases, it takes up to 8 days to reach a refuge from its nearest port, and it may be visited only once every 2 years!

From these protected waters, we can gain knowledge that can be applied elsewhere to improve coral reef management in more populated areas. They are ideal “laboratories” for assessing the effects of climate change without direct human impacts. And by protecting the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and the National Wildlife Refuges within it, future generations of Americans will still have the opportunity to sense the wonder of the world of nature in the midst of the Pacific.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Joseph Golovach and Capt. John Ramsey, pilots from the 535th Airlift Squadron at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, bring their C-17 Globemaster III in for a landing on Wake Island, Sept. 12, 2006. The C-17 brought a 53-person team to assess damage left by Super Typhoon Loke after it struck the island Aug. 31. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Air Force; photo by Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo)

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