Proposed Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Sanctuary

NOAA has released for public comment the draft designation documents for the proposed Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Sanctuary. This action comes after the agency conducted a thorough analysis and evaluated feedback from the public, stakeholders, Native Hawaiian communities, scientists, and federal and state agencies. The proposed sanctuary would include marine portions of the existing Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The proposed sanctuary is a place of unique environmental resources that provide large-scale ecosystem services for the region and the world. The marine habitat includes several interconnected ecosystems, including coral islands surrounded by shallow reefs (down to 100 feet), low-light mesophotic reefs (100 to 490 feet) with extensive algal beds, open ocean (pelagic) waters connected to the greater North Pacific Ocean, deep-water habitats such as abyssal plains 16,400 feet below sea level, and deep reef habitat characterized by seamounts, banks, and shoals.


Papahānaumokuākea is of great importance to Native Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture is a foundational element in management. The name Papahānaumokuākea commemorates the union of two Hawaiian ancestors – Papahānaumoku and Wākea – who gave rise to the Hawaiian Archipelago, the taro plant, and the Hawaiian people. Papahānaumokuākea is also home to a variety of post-Western-contact historic resources, such as those associated with the Battle of Midway and 19th century commercial whaling.

Papahānaumokuākea’s status as a marine national monument would not change under a sanctuary designation. The addition of a national marine sanctuary would provide regulatory and management tools to augment and strengthen existing protections for Papahānaumokuākea ecosystems, wildlife, and cultural and maritime heritage resources. The monument’s joint management structure, a hallmark feature, would remain. The sanctuary designation process is being conducted in collaboration with the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Interior, the state of Hawaiʻi and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs — the four agencies that share in the management of the monument.

The proposed sanctuary would have a Native Hawaiian program specialist on staff and the sanctuary advisory council would include Native Hawaiian seats. The communication and engagement team would develop events and outreach materials specifically to involve the Native Hawaiian community across the islands, including products in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.


There is a long history of considering this area for national marine sanctuary designation, beginning with an Executive Order in 2000 by President William J. Clinton. The National Marine Sanctuary Program began the process of designating the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve as a national marine sanctuary under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act in 2002, including the initiation of a public scoping process. President George W. Bush designated Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument under the Antiquities Act in 2006, based in part on the sanctuary designation process that was already underway. President Barack H. Obama's proclamation in 2016 created the Monument Expansion Area and also called for initiating the process to designate a national marine sanctuary. In 2020, the Senate Committee on Appropriations directed NOAA to initiate the sanctuary designation process.

These presidential proclamations and the existing regulations for Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument served as benchmarks for drafting the proposed rule for the proposed national marine sanctuary.

NOAA’s Proposal and Preferred Sanctuary Boundary

Map of the preferred boundary of proposed Papahānaumokuākea national marine sanctuary

NOAA is proposing a sanctuary area approximately 582,250 square miles. The agency’s preferred boundary overlaps with the marine portions of the monument. The boundary includes the marine environment surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from the shoreline of the islands and atolls seaward to 200 nautical miles, including all state waters and waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, Midway Atoll and Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuges, and state of Hawaiʻi Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Refuge. Large-scale conservation areas such as this are important to protect highly mobile species, such as sharks and marine mammals. They also protect entire ecosystems, preserving critical ecological functions and conserving biodiversity.

The proposed sanctuary would only add to — and not diminish — the management measures and protections provided by the presidential proclamations. NOAA has adopted the management measures from the presidential proclamations, and in a few places, added onto those measures to allow for consistency in management across the proposed sanctuary, the boundary of which would include the original monument as well as the monument expansion area. The proposed rule unifies management of the area by removing discrepancies and gaps in prohibitions, regulated activities, and permit criteria, providing clarity and comprehensive protection for the proposed sanctuary.

Commercial fishing is currently prohibited in monument waters. National marine sanctuary designation will not change this.

The draft management plan reflects five priority areas of sanctuary management:

  • resource protection and conservation
  • research and monitoring
  • governance and operations
  • partnerships and constituent engagement
  • education, interpretation, and mentoring

The plan considers both nature and culture together (biocultural perspective), and relies on input from multiple agencies (co-management perspective). Sanctuary management would supplement and complement, rather than supplant, the existing co-management regime of Papahānaumokuākea. Cooperative projects will be pursued with co-managing agencies of the monument that allow for ease in sharing resources and in-kind assistance and support, as appropriate.

The draft environmental impact statement describes the purpose and need for the proposed action, identifies a range of alternatives including the preferred alternative, provides an assessment of resources and uses in the area, and evaluates the potential environmental consequences of the proposed sanctuary designation. NOAA has found that the preferred alternative would provide numerous benefits, including increased protection and conservation of resources, and improved coordination of conservation and management.

Public comment

NOAA will accept public comment on the proposal from March 1 – May 7, 2024. The state of Hawaiʻi is also holding a public comment process under Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes Chapter 343, the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act, as a joint process.

Electronic Submission

Submit all electronic comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Go to and search for docket NOAA-NOS-2021-0114. Click the "Comment Now!" icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.


Send any hard copy public comments by mail to PMNM-Sanctuary Designation, NOAA/ONMS, 1845 Wasp Blvd., Bldg 176, Honolulu, HI 96818.

The Designation Process

NOAA initiated the sanctuary designation process on November 19, 2021, when it published a notice of intent to begin the process and solicited public comment. NOAA received more than 80 comments during the public comment period. NOAA reviewed and considered all public scoping comments and a team of staff developed the draft management plan, draft environmental impact statement, and proposed rule which are now available for public comment. NOAA will again consider all public comments received on these draft designation documents before determining how to move forward.


Public Scoping
November 19, 2021- January 21, 2022


Review of Public Comments and Preparation of Draft Documents
January 2022 - Spring, 2024

ONMS staff review all public comments submitted during the scoping period and produce a draft management plan, draft environmental impact statement, proposed regulations and proposed boundaries.


Release Draft Designation Documents and Provide for Public Comment Period
March 1 - May 7, 2024

Public review and comment on the draft designation documents.


Current Step

Prepare Final Designation Documents
May 2024 - Winter 2024

After reviewing public comments on the draft designation documents, ONMS staff make adjustments and produce the final designation documents.


Publish Final Designation Documents
Target: Winter 2024


Sanctuary Designation
Target: Early 2025

NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary System

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The network includes a system of 16 national marine sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments.

Through the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, NOAA can identify, designate, and protect areas of the marine and Great Lakes environment that have special national significance.

national marine sanctuary system map