by Lauren Stoneburner

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is a tropical marine haven. The region is made up of a string of fourteen small islands, originally formed by underwater volcanoes along the Marianas Trench. These islands make up a commonwealth of the United States, meaning that it has its own constitution and is largely autonomous, but receives economic assistance from the U.S. The coral reef habitats are at the center of each island’s rich ecosystem, establishing the foundation for a highly productive and diverse biological community, both marine and terrestrial. The islands’ isolation from other landmasses has also led to high levels of endemism, making these ecosystems particularly unique and treasured.

Today, while the northern islands of the CNMI remain largely uninhabited, the larger southern islands of Rota, Tinian, and Saipan carry about 70,000 people (State Wildlife Action Plan 2007). Unfortunately, these more heavily populated southern islands also have the oldest and most developed coral reefs of the CNMI (NOAA’s Coral Reef Information System 2012). Saipan is the island with the greatest diversity of coral reefs and associated habitats, yet its western side is also the most developed. This human activity hugely impacts the local reefs. As a whole, the coral reefs in the CNMI are reasonably healthy, but the condition of each reef is largely determined by its proximity to human population centers. Consequently, there has been a dire need for both remedial and proactive conservation programs.

Both the region’s biology and economy are enormously dependent on the coral reefs, so conservation projects within the CNMI focus primarily on protecting marine habitats.

The CNMI is also a member of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, which is on the CNMI is managed by the Department of Environmental Quality. This organization focuses on regulating land-based sources of pollution, over-fishing, and recreational misuse or overuse of marine resources, as well as increasing public awareness (Coastal Resources Management Office 2012).

Due to the central role that coral reefs play in supporting biological diversity, this additional effort and attention placed on preserving coral reefs is absolutely warranted. Additionally, regulations that protect coral reefs from pollution and educate the people about the importance of healthy ecosystems may improve activity with regard to other natural habitats. However, the narrow-minded focus on coral reefs leaves other vulnerable habitats defenseless. Plans to preserve coral reefs seek to maintain the ecosystem’s species diversity, but species diversity is only one element of biological diversity. Conservation efforts must also stress ecosystem diversity. This comprehensive approach is arguably the most promising approach to ensuring resilience, for each ecosystem will be impacted variably by changes to come.

The CNMI has developed a Coastal Program, which protects a more comprehensive set of habitats against the threats of coastal development. Of the many threats human activity poses on delicate marine ecosystems, the marine environment of the CNMI is most greatly affected by nonpoint source pollution, tourism, and overexploitation of marine resources, as well as sporadic stressors, such as outbreaks of invasive species and coral bleaching (Coastal Resources Management Office 2012; NOAA’s Coral Reef Information System 2012). To remedy these threats, the Coastal Program protects and restores coral reefs, wetlands, mangroves, lagoons, beaches and other coastal resources primarily by issuing development permits, educating the public, monitoring the condition of the reefs; and remediating problem areas (Coastal Resources Management Office 2012).

There is one other mechanism that enables the region to implement an ecosystem-oriented conservation strategy. The CNMI has created several marine protected areas (MPAs), which establish strict regulations regarding human activities in specified locations. With this political instrument, the CNMI has the potential to protect a variety of specific and diverse environments. Saipan—the most densely populated island—currently has five active marine protected areas. However, upon taking a closer look, these marine protected areas may seem insufficient.

The Bird Island Sanctuary and Forbidden Island Sanctuary both protect marine environments composed of fringing reefs, and they both primarily strive to protect nesting bird sanctuaries (NOAA’s Coral Reef Information System 2009). The other three marine protected areas protect freshwater wetlands (Division of Fish and Wildlife 2012). Though protection of freshwater habitats is extremely important, two of these sites are off-site mitigation areas where developers can purchase credits recognized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to maintain the protected habitat, in exchange for developing on wetlands elsewhere, meaning these MPAs legitimize the destruction of wetland habitats (Usa 2009).

The reasoning behind the site-selection of the CNMI’s MPAs was highly anthropocentric. Second to being a critical foundation to marine ecosystems, coral reefs are likely the focal point of two of the five MPAs because of human demands. Coral reefs are perceived as exotic and contain enormous aesthetic and cultural value, which makes them a desirable attraction for tourists. Thus, the reefs act as a source of revenue and are very central to the local population’s economy. Unlike many other ecosystems vital to the overall health of the island, coral reefs are extremely attractive, both physically and economically, as opposed to mangrove and wetland habitats, which are an essential habitat for many unique and endemic marine and terrestrial species, but a lesser tourist draw.

Economic benefits also lie behind the site selection of the three protected wetlands on Saipan. The Susupe Wetland filters runoff in order to ultimately protect the downstream coral reefs from sedimentation (Division of Fish and Wildlife 2012). Thus, the Susupe Wetland was chosen because of the demand for pristine coral reefs. Nevertheless, the wetland site is important for diversifying the ecosystems protected by MPAs, regardless of its selection reasoning.

The creation of the Saipan Upland Mitigation Bank is an even more explicit result of economic demand. This freshwater wetland has been dedicated to habitat restoration and the protection and long-term survival of the Nightingale Reed Warbler. With this conservation system in place, developers can buy credits, which signify a contribution to the protection of the Upland Mitigation Bank, in order to proceed with developing on lands where the Reed Warblers are known to exist (Usa 2009). Therefore, unlike the Susupe Wetland site that protects wetland sites to protect not only the designated wetland habitat, but also the coral reef habitat downstream, this mitigation MPA allows for similar habitats—even with critically endangered species such as the Nightingale Reed Warbler—to be destroyed, thus having a neutral, if not negative, impact on habitat preservation.

The Costco Park Wetland Mitigation Pond is yet another off-site mitigation project that attempts to make up for the loss of wetland habitat from the Costco Building (Division of Fish and Wildlife 2012). Because two of the five MPA sites on Saipan are chosen because of their economic value, rather than ecological value, and act as an excuse for the destruction of other valuable habitats, the CNMI has not fully safeguarded the dynamic and fragile relationships that connect various ecosystems and will determine the success of conservation efforts in the future.

Finally, there has been one last important method of establishing conservation areas. At the very end of his presidency in 2009, President George W. Bush authorized the establishment of three marine national monuments surrounding the U.S. Pacific islands, totaling an area of 195,274 square miles of water (Federal Register 2009). Of these three marine national monuments, the Marianas Trench lies within the CNMI’s jurisdiction, and a predominant achievement is the complete prohibition of fishing in the Islands Unit of the Marianas Trench (The White House 2009). These decisions were made using the Antiquities Act, which is a law made in 1906 and gives the U.S. president unilateral powers to designate federal lands (and waters) as national monuments without the intervention of Congress (National Park Service 2013). President Bush used this act to secure his “blue legacy” and perhaps even redeem his otherwise lack of involvement in enacting environmental legislation.

Some argue that this top-down approach in governance is unsafe when dealing with environmental issues. The first problem is that Congress is not consulted; therefore Congress is excluded from the role of instating national monuments that protect natural resources. Furthermore, the Antiquity Act allows the President to single-handedly designate an area as a national monument in the interest of the federal government, without any regard to the existing laws, procedures, or the sentiment of the local population (Walsh 2009). This disregard for the local population’s existing relationship with the land gives the law the potential to interfere with and even exploit indigenous peoples and their cultural practices, such as fishing practices (Walsh 2009). This is particularly critical to avoid, considering that the CNMI has a remote and largely indigenous population, subject to the legislation of the United States, a distant mainland, both geographically and culturally.

Those that remain skeptical of the use of the Antiquities Act for enacting environmental legislation argue that the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act are superior alternatives. These legislative methods for conserving habitats are considered to better balance local cultural and economic interests with the widespread goals of conserving marine environments (Walsh 2009). In the case of president Bush making a last desperate effort to redeem his name in the eyes of environmentalists, this opinion is justified. However, if the Antiquities Act is used correctly, it has the potential to significantly improve the health of oceans, especially around the CNMI.

If the Antiquities Act is again to be used in the interest of the environment, one key step that must be taken is the incorporation of science and multiple levels of stakeholders. Scientific findings must confirm the benefits of designating an area as a national monument, especially if human populations are to be affected by the restrictions. Science must also be used to decide what regulations are necessary to protect the ecosystem’s health. Because the people of the CNMI are largely vulnerable to their needs being overridden by federal decisions, there must also be a mechanism in place that mandates consideration of the indigenous culture and other local stakeholders.

If the Antiquities Act is able to systematically consider local community concerns and scientific findings—whether it be through mandated assistance from federal agencies or other checks and balances mechanisms—this system may bring about far more positive action with regard to preserving natural resources. Omitting the need for Congress’ approval will expedite the decision-making process, especially because the bipartisan nature of Congress often disables the force from making decisions entirely. Giving the president an alternative means of making rapid, time-sensitive decisions is a quality much needed today as environmental issues quickly accumulate and pose greater and greater threats to humankind.

In order to truly achieve the goals of protecting the CNMI’s reliance against the environmental changes and preserve the unique life forms that reside on the isolated islands, the CNMI must implement a more responsible array of conservation mechanisms that does not justify the destruction of critical habitat elsewhere. However, the CNMI has excelled in implementing a myriad of conservation policies to protect an array of habitats. However, some of these protected habitats are a result of negligence, excusing for further critical habitat to be erased from the Earth. An even more extensive matrix of protected lands must be developed in order to allow the protected areas to interact and species to move between protected habitats. These decisions may be made through an assortment of U.S. and Commonwealth policies and with varying degrees of restrictions on human activities.

However, in order to make both the sound and speedy decisions necessary to protect humans and their environment from irreversible damage, it is possible that a top-down governance—along side a mechanism to consider indigenous practices and local communities’ needs—will become a favorable method of circumventing the indecisive nature of Congress and conserving natural areas in the interests of both the local population and greater international community. If the federal government proves to consider local populations in its decision-making, as it did in 2009 under President Bush, then decisions must rise from the people of the CNMI to push for coastal and terrestrial conservation plans that protect the most unique and central habitats to both the people and macro-ecosystem.

About the author: Lauren Stoneburner is a rising junior undergraduate pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies and .B.A in Human Evolutionary Biology at the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She is interested in conservation biology, and looks forward to gaining experience working in the field during her trip to Guam and Palau this summer.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.


Coastal Resources Management Office. (2012). "Ocean and Coastal Management in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands." NOAA Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management : My State : Northern Mariana Islands. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Division of Fish and Wildlife. (2012). "Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands." Wildlife Protected Areas. Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Federal Register (2009). Establishment of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. U.S. Government Printing Office. Presidential Documents. Vol. 74, No. 7, p. 1557.

The White House (2009). “Establishment of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.” The White House. The White House: President George W. Bush Archives.

National Park Service (2013). “Antiquities Act of 1906.” National Park Service. Federal Historic Preservation Laws. p. 5-6

NOAA's Coral Reef Information System. (2012). "Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands." Coral Ecosystem Publications RSS. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA's Coral Reef Information System. (2009). "Coral Reef Habitat Assessment for U.S. Marine Protected Areas: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands." NOAA's Coral Reef Information System. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

State Wildlife Action Plan. (2007). "Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands." Northern Marianas Wildlife Action Plan. Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.

Usa, Ibp. (2009). Northern Mariana Islands Ecology & Nature Protection Handbook. USA: International Business Publications. p. 35.

Walsh, James P. (2009). "Presidential Bans On Commercial Fishing In Pacific Marine Protected Areas: A Politically Popular But Unlawful Regulatory Action?" Marine Resources Committee Newsletter 12.3: 1-10.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins

A New Faculty Member on the Team

An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact

Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich

Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity

The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island

Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences

Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do

Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor