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Amid the flurry of final votes on hundreds of bills last week, Hawaii lawmakers privately weighed whether to sign a letter to President Obama that Rep. James Tokioka was circulating during the last few days of the legislative session.
The letter called on the president not to consider expanding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, stating that “there is no scientific justification or conservation benefit in doing so.”
In all, 30 House lawmakers, including Speaker Joe Souki, signed the May 3 letter. Just days earlier, Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi sent Obama a nearly identical one.
This opposition, which lawmakers kept out of public view, has been overshadowed by a strong public push to expand the monument, officially designated by President George W. Bush as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2007.
The monument protects the habitat of more than 7,000 marine species, a quarter of which are believed to be found nowhere else.
It’s also home to 14 million seabirds that nest there. Its current protections, which include prohibitions against commercial fishing, extend 50 miles outside the island chain and encompass nearly 140,000 square miles.
A group of prominent Native Hawaiians — including Nainoa Thompson, navigator and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and William Aila, former chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources — asked the president in February to expand federal protections around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The Native Hawaiian group did not say at the time how much farther out they want Obama to expand the monument. But in the months since their letter to the president, local fishermen, scientists and conservationists have added their support.
They made it clear at a news conference last week that they want the president to expand the monument to the maximum limit that federal jurisdiction allows — 200 miles out, with certain exceptions.
The White House sent a delegation to Hawaii last week to learn more.
Gov. David Ige, who discussed the monument’s expansion with Obama during a trip to Washington in February, described the visit as a productive series of meetings with stakeholders ranging from commercial fishermen to environmentalists.
White House officials made it clear that the Obama administration intends to develop an official federal proposal to expand the monument, Ige said in an interview Wednesday. It’s unclear what the timeline is for doing so, but the governor said there would be a public input process.
Ige said he sees room for a compromise that involves some expansion of the monument but addresses potential impacts to the commercial fishing industry.
“Generally, some expansion of the national marine monument makes sense,” he said. “There are concerns from commercial fishermen, especially in areas around Kauai and Niihau, so I think there would be a way to take those concerns into consideration.”
In the lawmakers’ letter to Obama, they said the group’s proposed expansion of the monument out to 200 miles would cut the Hawaii longline fishing industry by 8 percent.
Hawaii longliners hauled in 27 million pounds of fish in 2013, with a dockside value of $85.4 million. The fish include bigeye and yellowfin tuna, known as ahi in Hawaii, along with swordfish, mahimahi, opah and ono.
The lawmakers said that an 8 percent reduction would mean 2.16 million pounds less of fish, representing an estimated $6.83 million hit to the industry.
The letters from House lawmakers and Kouchi went beyond a plea for the president not to expand the monument, to argue that he may lack the authority.
“Without sufficient scientific and empirical data and evidence, this arbitrary expansion would be in direct violation of the Antiquities Act,” the letters said.
Tokioka didn’t characterize the letter from lawmakers as being against expanding the monument.
“I wouldn’t say it’s opposition to the expansion,” he said. “It’s what’s wrong with status quo, and why do we need to expand it?”
The group supporting the expansion point to new species that have been discovered in the monument and healthy populations of sharks, Hawaiian grouper and other big predatory fish that have been overfished elsewhere.
Ige said that’s why he’s open to expanding the monument at least to a certain degree.
“Those are good things that came out of the existing monument,” he said, noting the discovery of new species. “Obviously, if there’s an expansion, there’s an opportunity for more research and discovery.”
One question that will need to be answered is what resources would become available if the monument were expanded, Ige said. His administration had asked for an additional state-funded position for the monument, but the Legislature rejected the request. The monument’s staff is primarily funded by the federal government.
Tokioka represents east Kauai and Kouchi represents Kauai and Niihau, the two main Hawaiian Islands nearest the monument. Commercial fishermen there are largely opposed to the expansion, although the Native Hawaiian group’s proposal calls for an exception for the waters surrounding Niihau and Kauai.
Kouchi said he told White House officials during their visit that he was worried about impacts to the fishing community and that they need to hold at least one public meeting on Kauai since the concern there is so strong.
“I understand the other issues about the monument and what it does,” he said. “Climate change in general is important to address. It’s not just about protecting fish.”
But Kouchi said there needs to be a “middle path” that addresses concerns about restricting access to more fishing grounds.
Hawaii’s seafood consumption of almost 37 pounds per person annually on average is well over twice the national average of 14 pounds.
“It’s not like the fish just jump in the restaurant,” Tokioka said. “Someone has to go catch them.”
Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, said the local fishing industry needs the flexibility to fish in the area being considered for expansion.
He said the longline fleet, which has 140 boats, spends an average of 8 percent to 11 percent of their time there.
“We try to go where the fish are,” Martin said. “Sometimes they’re there.”
Mostly, he’s not sold on the conservation benefits, pointing at how the waters there can be 14,000 feet deep so it’s not really about protecting coral reefs.
“This is a feel-good thing,” Martin said. “We all like to do our part, but there really is no conservation benefit. There’s just an initiative by some who think this area has more significance than other areas.”
Supporters have pointed at the black corals found in the area proposed for expansion, and the importance of protecting the world’s oldest marine animal, which can live to be 4,500 years old.
Martin said the White House delegation visited him and 40 or so other fishermen, fish wholesalers and restaurateurs last week. He said the White House officials listened to their concerns, and made it clear they were on a fact-finding mission and no official proposal had been formulated yet.
Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case said in a statement Wednesday that Papahanaumokuakea is “one of the world’s most magnificent natural and scientific, and historical and cultural treasures.”
“DLNR is pleased President Obama is considering expanding the monument area for this World Heritage Site to extend protections for this ancient and modern source of life for Hawaii,” she said. “We appreciate that the Obama administration is taking care to conduct meaningful fact finding and seek input from those who may be impacted from such a designation, such as current longline and recreational fishers from Hawaii, and to evaluate ways to minimize current impact while creating a true legacy for the future for Hawaii, America and the world.”
Read the letters from House lawmakers and the Senate president below.