The Underwater Cultural Heritage of the Marshall Islands; A Discussion of the Resources, the Legislation, the Community, Protection and Preservation

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The Underwater Cultural Heritage of the Marshall Islands; A Discussion of the Resources, the Legislation, the Community, Protection and Preservation


Session 8:
Pacific Islands region: Building UCH Capacity


The unique underwater cultural heritage (UCH) of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) remains a formidable challenge for management and preservation. The heritage includes traditional sites such as important coral reef heads and Marshallese fish traps, the Japanese and American signature of World War II in the Pacific, and the material evidence of nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. Last year, Bikini Atoll was inscribed as a World Heritage Site, and Kwajalein Atoll remains a United States National Historic Landmark. Traditional sites continue to be used by Marshallese navigators and fisherman. A widening circle of legislation informs management, including the respective RMI and United States legislation, U.S. military regulations, and global strategies for World Heritage management. Consultation and planning may require involvement from landowners, Irooj (traditional chiefs), mayors, tour operators, developers, the military, local cultural resource officers, and the governing agencies.

Geography and unreliable transport pose a challenge to preservation and protection. The 29 atolls and 5 islands are not easily reachable, requiring collaboration and creativity for survey and monitoring. Threats to underwater cultural resources range from WWII wreck looting to ensuring continued access for fisherman to traditional fish traps at a proposed surf resort. The value of historic preservation often competes with development interests and the immediacy of economic need.

This paper is a discussion of the ways that the Historic Preservation Office approaches the vastness, multiplicity of legislation, range of stakeholders, and challenges that are associated with preservation and protection of the UCH in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. First I present an overview of the geography and the resources, followed by discussion of the various legislation and our actions to address the challenges and build capacity to protect and preserve the UCH in the Marshall Islands.


Mary Jane Naone


November 2011



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