The White House announced late Wednesday that President Barack Obama would prohibit fishing in three of America’s remote island territories in the Pacific by declaring them marine national monuments.

In June, Obama had proposed closing five areas, which would have doubled the no-take zone. The five areas — known as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument — surround the atolls of Wake, which is east of Hawaii and not fished, and the tuna-rich waters around Jarvis, Johnston, Howland and Baker, and Palmyra and Kingman Reef.

Instead, Obama will use the Antiquities Act to expand the no-fishing zones around Jarvis, Johnston and Wake, but allow fishing to continue in about 90 percent of the waters around Palmyra and Howland and Baker, the two most fished areas. The exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Howland and Baker adjoins Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which President Anote Tong has pledged to close to fishing next year.

Together, they would have made the biggest marine reserve in the world, exceeding the current titleholder, the United Kingdom’s Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean.

Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

A bluefin trevally at Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Kydd Pollock

The move was a victory for the  Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, whose longtime executive director, Kitty Simonds, had led a delegation to the White House this month to express its opposition to the broad closure to top administration officials.

“U.S. fishermen should be able to fish in U.S. zones,” she said afterward.

Members also met with Sen. Brian Schatz, whose press secretary did not return several phone calls for this story.

Scientists had said the president’s original proposal would have allowed numbers of tuna inside the areas to grow again even as stocks in the rest of the Pacific are quickly diminishing because of overfishing. This would have ensured Hawaii’s access to ahi for the foreseeable future and would probably not have affected the price of the fish brought in by Hawaii’s longline fleet — only 4 percent of the fish the fleet brings to Honolulu originates in monument waters, mostly Palmyra and Howland and Baker.

Obama’s action, which Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to announce at a conference on oceans in New York on Thursday, will protect 400,000 square miles instead of more than 700,000 square miles in the original proposal.

The Pew Charitable Trusts issued a press release in Washington quoting Matt Rand, its director of the Ocean Legacy program, as saying that the president’s decision “protects some of the world’s most important ocean habitats and provides sanctuary for rare and endangered sharks, seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals.”

In 2006, President George Bush used the 1906 Antiquities Act, previously only employed to set aside land areas of great significance or natural beauty, to turn the waters within 50 miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands into the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, ending a small bottom-fish fishery based in Honolulu. In 2009, Bush reached for it again to close the waters within 50 miles of the five Western Pacific Region National Monuments, or about 11 percent of their total Exclusive Economic Zones.

In addition to the Hawaii-based longliners, a dozen U.S. purse seine vessels and 21 longliners based in Samoa also fish in Howland and Baker, which provided 1.7 percent of the total Samoa purse seine catch in 2012.

The U.S. does not allow foreign vessels to fish in its waters, so the five areas are less fished than the surrounding areas.

Longliners in 2012 caught six times more yellowfin in the monuments per 1,000 hooks than they did in the non-U.S. waters, according to federal statistics, suggesting that there may already be more yellowfin there because of lower fishing pressure.

All of these islands are today among the healthiest ecosystems in the world. Most strikingly, the reef fauna have the opposite structure of the reefs that we see in the main Hawaiian Islands, including Hanauma Bay, and indeed in African national parks, where a small number of top predators preside over a large number of prey. In intact tropical reefs, most of the biomass is made up of sharks, big groupers and other top predators, while their prey are much less numerous and spend most of their life hiding.

“The grass grows faster when you mow it,” explained Alan Friedlander of the University of Hawaii.

The reefs also contain many commercially valuable species that have escaped overfishing because the islands are so remote. But longliners are known to come close to shore to illegally pick up sharks, whose fins are dried on board and are sold for extra cash by the crew. Extending the exclusion zone from 50 to 200 miles would make poaching near the reefs that much harder, Friedlander said.

Otherwise, the move would have little immediate effect on the price or supply of ahi to Hawaii, as nearly all of it is brought in from areas outside those Obama is proposing to close.

Sean Martin, the president of the Hawaii Longline Association and a former chairman of Wespac, also vigorously opposed the proposed closures. He said that even if only 4 percent of the 129-vessel Honolulu fleet’s catch now comes from the monuments, “If you take those opportunities away, yes we’re going to go somewhere else. Is it as productive? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But can you put a definitive number on (the extra expense), I don’t think so.”

Martin pointed out that a decade ago, the proportion of the Hawaii fleet’s catch coming from the monument waters stood at 15 percent. “The fishermen go where the fish are,” he said.

Wespac is the Honolulu-based federally financed council dominated by fishing companies that is charged with advising the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on fishing practices in U.S. Pacific waters. The council had argued that “the best available scientific information” suggests the measure will not yield “any discernable conservation benefit” because the tuna travel so far that they would receive no benefit from temporarily sheltered from fishing.

But tagging experiments with skipjack, yellowfin, and bigeye tunas in the Pacific have shown that some do remain in one region.

Indeed, said David Itano, a fisheries scientist at the University of Hawaii, studies suggest that 90 percent of the yellowfin tuna caught in the Main Hawaiian Islands are in effect kama’aina.

Other scientists pointed out that individual fishes, like individual people, behave differently. Some will remain all their life in the reserves and their offspring will be more likely to do the same.

The bigeye travel further than other species but still, for those that remain inside the reserves, “Their offspring will have a genetic advantage,” said Jon Mee of the University of Calgary, who is studying the possible effects of the closure. “Their numbers will grow, we just don’t know how fast.”

Bigeye, which makes up 80 percent of Hawaii’s longline fleet catch of ahi, is the second-most-depleted of the Pacific’s commercial, blue-water species after bluefin.

Glenn Hurry is an Australian academic who recently ended a four-year-term as executive director of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, whose 25 member nations control the region’s $5 billion tuna-dominated fishery.

Hurry laments that overfishing has reduced yellowfin to 38 percent of its original adult population, while bigeye is down to 16 percent and bluefin is 4 percent. “In a well-managed fishery, you’d actually stop fishing and begin to rebuild the stocks,” he said.

Scientists say that given the global resistance to stop such a profitable fishery, there is little chance that the nations that fish in the Pacific will heed Hurry’s advice and stop the bigeye fishery so the population can grow back.

The fishery’s own scientists have been calling for a decade for a 30 percent cut in the bigeye catch, but the member states have only increased it. Indeed, in 2012, the most recent year for which NOAA statistics are available, Hawaii’s longliners deployed a total of 45 million hooks, compared with 12 million in 1991. The result: the longliners in 2012 caught nearly 160,000 bigeyes, a record catch, compared with 40,000 in 1991.

Historically, ahi in Hawaii was mostly yellowfin, which feeds in the upper layer of the ocean and can also be caught trolling. In contrast, bigeye swim much deeper – hence their big eyes.

It wasn’t until recent decades that longliners learned how to deploy their hooks in deeper water and reversed the proportions of the catch. Because of their richer taste and higher fat content, bigeye, which commonly weigh 200 pounds and can reach 400 pounds, fetch better prices than yellowfin.

In this context, some fisheries scientists said that extending the area of the U.S. marine monuments, which is intended to preserve relatively pristine swaths of ocean for their own sake, not to better manage the fisheries, would also help ensure Hawaii’s future supply of ahi, particularly if Palmyra and Howland and Baker had been included.

Of the three islands whose protected zone was extended, only Jarvis, the one with the smallest zone, is located in the so-called tuna belt, a fish-rich zone straddling the equator.

In coming decades, predicts Douglas McCauley, a marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the density of tuna inside the Jarvis zone will increase as it continues to fall outside, and the border will become a magnet for fishing vessels.

“When I looked out my window” while he was doing his graduate work in Monterey, McCauley said, “I could see the border of the local marine reserve because the squid fishing boats were all lined up along it. In the Channel Islands reserve, you can see it too, only it’s a line of lobster trap buoys. It happens all over the world, and it’s called fishing the line.”

About the Author