HONOLULU – The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — a pristine haven for coral and other marine life, and a treasured site of ancient Hawaiian shrines — has been named a U.N. World Heritage site.
The area northwest of the main Hawaiian islands is the only U.S. location to make the list for both natural and cultural reasons, said monument spokesman Dan Dennison.
The WorldHeritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, made the decision at a meeting in Brazil, Dennison said.
The committee aims to identify sites "considered to be of outstanding value to humanity" and encourages their protection and preservation. There are currently about 890 sites around the world on the list.
The State Department said the monument is the first U.S. site to be added in 15 years. The Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are among 20 U.S. sites already recognized.
Papahanaumokuakea consists of remote, mostly uninhabited atolls northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands and the waters surrounding them.
It's home to 69 percent of the coral reefs in U.S. territory. It also hosts 7,000 marine species, a quarter of which are found only in Hawaii. The area is off-limits to fishing, allowing for healthy and abundant populations of sharks, ulua or jackfish, and other marine life.
At Mokumanamana, a rocky outcrop in the monument about 460 miles northwest of Honolulu, ancient heiau, or shrines, line the top of a ridge running along the spine of the island.
There are similar shrines, with upright stones, in the main Hawaiian islands atop the highest peaks of Maui — Haleakala — and of the Big island — Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes.
But Mokumanamana has an unusually high concentration of heiau — at least 34 on just 46 acres.
Haunani Apoliona, chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said the listing will help preserve Papahanaumokuakea for future generations.
"We are very proud of this historic inscription," Apoliona said in a statement.
The monument is the nation's single largest conservation area and is nearly 100 times larger than Yosemite National Park.
President George W. Bush made the area a national monument in 2006.
Delegates from the 193 nations that signed the 1972 World Heritage Convention have been in Brazil for 10 days of meetings.
According to a website about the area, visiting is permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only for scientific, educational and cultural purposes.