Whether you want more fresh sashimi at a reasonable price or to save sea turtles from extinction, chances are the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council will have a role in the outcome.
Wespac’s 13 voting members make decisions at public meetings held three times a year that impact thousands of people — arguably millions — and hundreds of species. The federally funded agency is one of eight in the nation that collectively operate on a $28 million annual budget.
Yet relatively few in Hawaii could even name the Wespac council chair, Manny Duenas, let alone tell you anything about its latest actions.
Beginning Monday, the council will get together for four days of meetings at the Laniakea YWCA in Honolulu, a relatively small venue for a group who’s packed agenda could attract dozens of interested people.
The members will set catch limits for the all-important tuna, take action on hot-button environmental issues, and consider closing certain areas to avoid depleting fish stocks. The decisions can have major impacts on how much money the fishing industry makes next year, as well as how successful the recovery efforts of endangered species will be.
“The average person should be interested because it’s a great opportunity for them to have a say in how fisheries are managed in federal waters,” Wespac spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding said Thursday.
Federal waters begin three miles offshore and extend out 200 miles. So Wespac has direct jurisdiction over nearly 1.5 million square miles of ocean, roughly the same size as the continental United States. It also manages domestic fisheries based in the U.S. Pacific Islands that operate on the high seas.
The Hawaii commercial fishing industry alone generates roughly a half-billion dollars in sales annually and provides 11,000 jobs, according to a recent report. The Aloha State’s recreational fishery adds another 7,000 jobs and more than $773 million in total sales.
So when the council decides to close a fishery or limit how much ahi can be caught, the fishermen feel the impact but so do people who eat fish or work in the industry indirectly.
Managing this massive area to ensure the resources remain available for future generations is among the council’s primary objectives. With millions of pounds of fish harvested annually in the waters Wespac oversees, the council has faced increasing scrutiny over the 36 years since it was created.
The biggest critics have been environmental groups like Earth Justice who have successfully sued to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to change practices deemed harmful to endangered species.
Officially, the council only advises NMFS. But as Earth Justice attorney Paul Achitoff said, Wespac’s role is significant because NMFS has final say on anything the council does.
Earth Justice is looking closely at a new federal proposal that would increase the number of endangered sea turtles fishermen are legally allowed to accidentally kill or catch annually. The council will be discussing this topic next week.
“Many of the council members are fishing industry insiders who act to protect the short-term interests of the local fishing industry at the expense of the resources,” said Achitoff, who has fought Wespac and NMFS in court for the past 14 years. “That is unfortunately why all these lawsuits take place, because many of the members of Wespac will vote in favor of more and more fishing and less and less protection for endangered species like turtles or marine mammals.”
Wespac officials deny these allegations.
“To say that the decisions are made by the industry is not really founded in fact,” Spalding said, noting the diverse makeup of the council and its advisory groups. “Everything is vetted through scientists. And once passed, it has to get approved by the Secretary of Commerce.”
The council has 13 voting members and three non-voting members. Eight members are nominated by the governors of Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Mariana Islands, and selected by the Secretary of Commerce. Four are designated state officials, including Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Aila. The final four are designated federal officials from NMFS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of State.
The committee members that advise the council represent a broad swath of sciences, from biology to social, and include non-fishing industry people and environmentalists, Spalding said.
Media reports over the past several years have pointed at allegations of fraud and mismanagement within the council. A 2006 story in the Cascadia Times, for instance, talks about how fishers triggered a dramatic collapse of the lobster in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and how the agency in 2004 admitted that overfishing for bottomfish was occurring throughout the archipelago.
The fact that Aila is now on the council is significant in and of itself. In January 2005, before Aila was DLNR chief, he testified against Wespac claims that a proposed national marine sanctuary would infringe on Native Hawaiian rights. He urged Wespac to fully protect the islands and asked for the strongest protection for the ecosystem, ceded lands and sacred sites, according to the Times story. (Wespac responded to the Times article in a 12-page letter, refuting the findings.)
The science has been at the root of lawsuits. In the case of the incidental take of sea turtles, for instance, the number comes from biological opinions by NMFS scientists. The council says it looks at the current state-of-affairs and the best science available in deciding whether to make any changes to its management plans.
Fishing techniques — from longlines to drift nets, and types of hooks to kinds of bait — have evolved due to council actions, sometimes stemming from lawsuits. Wespac also has a technical team that analyzes alternatives for regulatory changes, focusing on economics and ecosystems.
Eight fishery councils, Western Pacific being one, were established in 1976 under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This is the main law governing the management of living marine resources in the U.S. and guides nearly all council actions.
Over the years, this law has been amended to improve environmental protections and require annual catch limits in part so overfished stocks can recover.
The Council Coordinating Committee, which brings together the chairs and executive directors of the nation’s eight regional councils, wrapped up its annual meeting in May.
Among the CCC’s concerns was the impact on U.S. fisheries of critical habitat designations and listing species as endangered or threatened. The committee said the Endangered Species Act process should have a higher level of transparency and public involvement than is currently typical.
The committee also identified budgetary concerns, which Wespac has voiced in recent years in light of cuts due to tight economic times. The CCC recommended that the 2013 budget for the councils remain the same as in 2012 at $28.4 million.
Another top concern the council’s identified is food security. The committee reported that the U.S. imports 86 percent of the seafood that it consumes, resulting in an annual seafood trade deficit of more than $10.4 billion — second only to oil in the natural resources category.
With all the talk about the importance of eating locally, Spalding said fish caught in the wild should be part of any sustainability campaign. She said boosting local fish production can help reduce the carbon footprint while helping U.S. food security.
Advisory committees met this week at the council’s office on Bishop Street to go over roughly the same agendas and make recommendations to the full council. Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee is one of these.
The group of 19 people, most of whom have doctorates, represent various government agencies and groups from Hawaii to Micronesia. The committee’s meetings this week focused on protected species such as corals and turtles, marlins’ mortality rates, Hawaii bottomfish and several programs such as improving data collection.