It has surprised me that several notable Hawaiian leaders joined conservation advocates to help trigger the request to President Obama to expand the boundaries of the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. I assume it means that they endorse the conservation model that underpins the global initiative to place 30 percent of the world’s oceans into marine reserves.

That conservation model is inconsistent with the traditional Hawaiian concepts of managing natural resources.

If the proposed monument expansion being advocated becomes law, the area that would be off-limits to fishing would dramatically balloon to 580,000 square miles, an area more twice the size of Texas.

Hoei Maru shipwreck at Kure Atoll in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Hoei Maru shipwreck, at Kure Atoll, is a landmark in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Claire Fackler, NOAA

The Western concept of conservation as a natural resource management strategy, if observed as actually practiced, seems based on two fundamental principles. The first is to “preserve” the area in perpetuity, protecting it from being used at all if possible. The second is to severely restrict humans from accessing the area, except perhaps for those who wish to study it.

The Hawaiian concept of conservation, or preservation or managing a natural resource – however you wish to characterize it – was never about closing out the resource forever. The traditional Hawaiian model would prefer planting a hillside in kalo (taro) as a productive, quality-of-life activity rather than adopting a model that would restrict access to the land simply to have it lie fallow. Indeed, by the time Captain Cook came to Hawaii in 1778, almost every bit of arable land was under cultivation, including such agriculturally marginal areas as the Kohala field system on the Big Island and Kahikinui on Maui.

Kapu Were Temporary

In practice, Hawaiians did invoke temporary kapu (restrictions) or closures in order to sustain or reinvigorate an environmental condition but always with the intention of returning it to a productive use and human access.

“Traditional Hawaiian fisheries management was carried out at a local level in sophisticated management schemes because biological processes that were the basis for management decisions often occurred on small geographical scales,” according to a 1923 Hawaiian-language article by Native Hawaiian fishing practitioner Z.P.K. Kawaikaumaiikamakaokaopua from Napoopoo. That article was recently published in English thanks to the work of the Hawaiian Newspaper Translation Project

Kawaikaumaiikamakaokaopua was citing an example of the commonly adopted approach to fisheries management by Hawaiians who were, in every sense, knowledgeable about the science of fishery management. The difference was that Hawaiian “science” was termed differently. I refer to it simply as Native Wisdom, which in fact was all about science.

The general approach of ancient Hawaiians to marine-life management was to declare a species-specific “no take” kapu as the spawning season approached, to insure that a full measure of the spawning period occurred and the fish were allowed to grow to harvest-ready size. The kapu were generally imposed for a six-month period.

These closures were offset to a great degree by the building and stocking of fishponds with two important purposes. One was to fatten the fish. Most important, though, was to provide relief from the kapu, because there were severe penalties for violating it — often death.

This map shows the proposed expansion area around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
This map shows the proposed expansion area around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Courtesy: Sen. Brian Schatz

This is but one verifiable account of a traditional Hawaiian fishery management practice.

I realize that it’s too late to turn back the clock and that times are different now, so attempts to restore traditional Hawaiian fisheries management systems would be difficult at best. But the Papahanaumokuakea marine reserve conservation model of fisheries management is by and large inconsistent with the basic concepts underlying traditional Hawaiian practices, which require a human caretaker presence in the managed area.

I also acknowledge that managing people’s abuse of our marine resources is a daunting challenge, which makes it difficult to resist the temptation to severely restrict his access. But expelling humans in perpetuity from the environment to be managed is an illogical strategy.

Hawaii And The Sea

Hawaii’s relationship with the ocean runs deep, in a long, unbroken tradition of freely accessing her bounty. Hawaii’s people consume thousands of pounds of seafood every day. Many of our multi-cultural island traditions are rooted in seafood and fishing. Our celebration of home-grown, home-harvested seafood is an important thread of unification that bonds us as one people.

We import 90 percent of our food supply. Seafood makes up most of the remaining 10 percent. As a matter of food security, one of the most important building blocks toward weaning ourselves off of our near-total reliance on importing our food supply is our home-grown fishing industry.

Any proposal that would diminish our capacity to access and harvest a food supply that sits at our doorstep needs to be approached with extreme caution and certainly not without full and free discussion.

Hawaii’s commercial fishermen connect us to the sea. The fish they land on our docks is one of the few sources of quality food that doesn’t arrive in a Matson container.

As a matter of public policy, the people of Hawaii are entitled to the bounty of our marine environment. Fishermen connect us to that bounty. We should stand by them and demand that any third- party intervention from spheres of political influence lodged thousands of miles away be held accountable — especially because their colonizing initiatives would pre-empt our sovereignty to govern access to Hawaii’s marine resources.

Longliners Are Most At Risk

The proposed expansion would shift the existing 50-mile boundary out to what is called the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The EEZ is the legal limit of U.S. (or any country’s) jurisdiction, as spelled out in the International Law of the Sea.

Of the three commercial fishing groups — small boat fishers, bottom fishers and longline fishers — Hawaii’s longline fishing industry is most at risk if the expansion is enacted.

Longliners fish the deep ocean. They pursue bigeye tuna, which yield higher prices in the market than skipjack and yellowfin. They take other pelagic fish as by-catch. This is the group that provides Hawaii with our high quality ahi.

It is true that much of the time these longliners already fish beyond the 200-mile boundary, so advocates of expansion claim the impact of banning them from fishing in the expanded area is minimal.

photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A bluefin (ahi) tuna fillet. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But it doesn’t work that way. Dean Sensui of Hawaii Goes Fishing rebuts the minimum impact notion by referencing a recent catch made inside the proposed expansion zone by three longline boats that landed a total of 74,000 pounds of fish. That amount represented one-third of the day’s catch. Without those 74,000 pounds, stores and restaurants would have had 30 percent less ahi that day. If we had 30 percent less ahi every day, imagine what that would do to prices and availability. Monument expansion would have blocked them from fishing the area.

Tuna schools constantly move across vast expanses of the ocean, crisscrossing and ignoring imaginary man-made boundaries. They don’t acknowledge our designations of the 3-mile limit, 12-mile territorial waters and 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. They roam the vast ocean.

Fishermen have to go where the fish go. Preventing fishermen from going where the fish go doesn’t make sense.

The longline fishery is the largest fishery in Hawaii. It is a model fishery. Longliners are heavily regulated in terms of catch limits and insuring a sustainable yield, subject to enforcement by on-board federal observers, and monitored for their sensitivity to protecting sea birds, sea turtles and other marine species. As a matter of food security, 80 percent of the longline catch stays in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s pelagic (deep water) fisheries are healthy. There is an absence of any compelling scientific findings, particularly relating to longline fishing, that can be validated to justify expansion.

John Kaneko, program manager for the Hawaii Seafood Council, wrote to President Obama that “Hawaii’s open ocean longline fishers are among the most intensively studied, monitored, managed and responsible fishers in the world … and [are] a model for pelagic fishery management.”

What Will Be Protected That is Not Already Protected?

I leave the reader with the following bulleted statements from a recent letter to President Obama from the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council Scientific and Statistical Committee:

  • There is no scientific or conservation justification to support monument expansion.
  • The existing monument provides protection to the coral reef system, other vulnerable habitats and species and cultural resources.
  • Expansion beyond the existing boundary would not provide any additional conservation benefits for highly mobile species such as tuna, billfish, sharks, seabirds and marine mammals that range far beyond the monument area.
  • Marine resources found outside the monument area zone but within the 200-mile U.S. EEZ already are protected by congressional laws and federal rules.
  • Expansion would not provide additional buffer from the effects of climate change.

It’s particularly hard for me, as a Hawaiian, to oppose monument expansion as a marine conservation measure, which many believe supports the concept of the popularized slogan aloha aina – or caring for the land. But I have a different take on aloha aina and how it should be carried  out consistent with a translation of the word aina as meaning “that which feeds”.

The Northwest Hawaiian Islands already are protected fully by the existing monument. The rationale for expansion is without merit.

Most important to me is transparency in the dialogue and insuring that whatever the decision, it’s a decision made by Hawaii’s people.

About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.