In June, President Obama unveiled a plan to enlarge the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which is south and west of Hawaii, to nearly 755,000 square miles.
After much back and forth with the fishing industry, which decried the proposal’s potential effect on Hawaii’s tuna-fishing fleet, the administration last week announced a scaled-back expansion plan to protect roughly 490,000 square miles.
While the monument will still be the biggest no-take marine preserve in the world, and the deal represents a compromise — all too rare in public life these days — there’s a legitimate question as to whether one of the stakeholders was adequately represented.
That’d be the fish.
Blue plate coral at Jarvis Island.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/James Maragos
The administration took off the table the proposed expansion of the no-take zone in two tuna-rich areas, one around Howland and Baker islands, and the other around Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll.
The United States already does more than other countries to preserve marine life, Wespac said in a 10-page memo, so let Americans fish American-controlled waters.
“U.S. fishermen, including those in the Pacific, already abide by the strictest fishing regulations in the world,” Wespac said, “and this plan further inhibits their economic survival.”
Administration officials were swayed by the urgings of Wespac — and some members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation — to lessen the financial impact on the longline and purse seine fishermen who ply these waters, as well as tuna canneries in American Samoa.
But how much will it really do to help rapidly diminishing fish stocks recover?
The newly enlarged protected zone around Wake Island, for instance, is not even fished. The rest of the expansion will be around Jarvis Island and Johnston Atoll.
There are wildly divergent opinions about how much an expanded protection zone will help the recovery of tuna, which are mostly migratory. Nevertheless, it is disheartening that Wespac, which is federally funded and charged with encouraging sustainable fishing practices, has such a short-sighted view.
After all, it’s undeniable that if less are caught, more survive to propagate the species. Not to mention these areas contain deep corals that are thousands of years old, 22 species of marine mammals, five species of endangered sea turtles, and millions of nesting seabirds.
Earth’s oceans may seem limitless, but they are not. The scientific journal Nature reported last year that only 10 percent of all large fish — both open ocean species including tuna, swordfish, marlin and the large groundfish such as cod, halibut, skates and flounder — are left in the seas:
“From giant blue marlin to mighty bluefin tuna, and from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left,” said lead author Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist based at Dalhousie University in Canada. “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.”
While the United States can’t solve this problem by itself, it should play a lead role. Expanding no-take zones does come at a short-term financial cost to the fishing industry, but sacrifices made now to restore the fish population mean a brighter future for everyone, including Hawaii’s fishing fleet.
When he announced his original proposal, the president said he wanted to use his power to “protect some of our most precious marine landscape.”
Here’s hoping the Obama administration retained enough of its original expansion proposal to do the job.
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