A proposal to dramatically increase the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — a vast ocean area already bigger than the nation of Germany — deserves President Barack Obama’s support before he leaves office.

The plan, as articulated last month by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in a letter to the president, enjoys strong scientific and political support, with prominent Native Hawaiian leaders, a group of 1,500 scientists and Schatz himself among those pressing the president for approval.

On the opposite side: A sizable group of state lawmakers and longline fishers for bigeye tuna, the latter of whom will have to travel further and work a bit harder to reach their annual catch limit for the prize fish, so important to Hawaii diets and our restaurant industry.

Despite some legitimate concerns raised by those legislators and fishers, the proposal holds significant enough promise to make it worth turning into reality. Here’s why.

Commercial tuna fishers are leading the charge against the monument expansion, even though waters in the area only account for about 8 percent of their tuna haul each year.
Commercial tuna fishers are leading the charge against the monument expansion, even though waters in the area only account for about 8 percent of their tuna haul each year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under the expansion, the already sizable monument would become the largest marine reserve in the world — a sprawling 582,578 square miles, extending to the limit of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. Within that area is an “an ecosystem that sustains tuna, swordfish, sharks, seabirds, sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals,” coral reefs and the world’s highest density of apex predators, all of which will be strengthened by the expansion, wrote Schatz in a letter to Obama last month, citing “the best available science.”

Schatz sent that letter after meetings with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Council on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Department of the Interior, state and county government leaders, Native Hawaiians, fishermen, scientists and environmental groups changed him from a “conditional” supporter of the expansion to a supporter without reservations.

His letter made a compelling case for the change, incorporating multiple ideas that address concerns raised by key stakeholders in those discussions. Perhaps chief among them was that the prevalence of genetic variation and diversity in the area represent “the single best hope for adaptation and resilience against ocean warming and acidification” and climate change overall.

Toward the latter point, Schatz explained, “In the same way that intact forests sequester carbon, healthy ocean ecosystems provide a vigorous carbon sink that lowers the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

It should be further noted that expanding the area home to those natural resources would represent a strong contribution toward the need to protect at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans against human exploitation — something that marine scientists agree is critical. Those same scientists raise compelling additional biological arguments in favor of preserving the area in question, among them the ongoing discovery there of new animals and species.

Beyond the biological and ecological reasons, there are arguments that speak to the area’s importance to Native Hawaiian’s cultural and historic heritage, as well as the fact that it is home to six U.S. and Japanese battleships lost in World War II, only one of which has been found. While not as compelling as the biological arguments, they provide a trigger for the president to consider the expansion under the Antiquities Act of 1906. They round out a solid case for expansion.

Commercial longline fishers — and legislators speaking on their behalf — face fundamental difficulties in pushing back against the proposal. First, the fishing industry takes only about 8 percent of its annual bigeye tuna haul from waters included in the expansion. It reached its total quota last year by mid-summer (and is on the verge of doing so again now for 2016), which typically has the boats turning to Guam, the Northern Marianna Islands and Samoa to purchase their unused quota and continue fishing in Hawaiian waters for the remainder of the year.

There is little reason to think that the monument expansion will significantly change that.

Secondly, bigeye tuna is a highly mobile and migratory species not confined to areas within the proposed monument expansion area. While fishermen will certainly be able to find them outside monument waters, avoiding them inside the monument will protect other fish, seabirds and turtles too often ensnared as bycatch.

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

Third, under terms Schatz suggested, the commercial fishing industry as well as recreational and traditional subsistence fishers from Kauai and Niihau would be able to continue fishing in areas east of 163 degrees west longitude, which includes a “particularly active” fishing spot. Keeping that area open to fishing significantly reduces the region originally proposed for expansion, representing a substantial compromise that addresses both environmental and fishing community concerns.

Fishing advocates haven’t helped themselves with a sketchy TV ad that fudges the truth. The ad claims that if the monument is expanded, consumers wouldn’t be able “to eat fresh, local fish anymore” and that Native Hawaiians don’t support the expansion. But Hawaii longliners would have little trouble catching their ahi quota under the expansion, and though some Native Hawaiians oppose the proposal, a group of seven prominent Hawaiians took part in drafting the request to President Obama to expand the monument earlier this year.

Hawaii commercial fishers set a strong standard in observing best practices and doing their part to maintain the health of fish species and the marine ecosystem around Hawaii. They also raise legitimate concerns about the lack of adequate oversight for foreign fishing vessels that enter U.S. waters and the lack of fisheries observers on much of the foreign fleet.

Their efforts in this matter would have been better served by a campaign that spoke to those issues than by ads that sought to exploit Native Hawaiian fears and dramatically overstate the consumer impact of an expanded monument.

The state Environmental Council, which serves as Gov. David Ige’s primary community advisory group on matters related to the natural world, is due to take up this matter on Friday. We encourage council members to make a strong recommendation to the governor to back the expansion proposal and for Ige to add his support to that of the growing number of elected officials, scientists, Native Hawaiians, fishers and other stakeholders encouraging approval by the president.

If Obama remains interested in moving forward on the monument proposal, he may need to do so quickly. An amendment passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday along party lines that would block funding for any national marine monument designated by the president. The matter must still pass the Senate and conference committee, and those considerations are expected to be complete no later than Sept. 30.

The president is thought to be preparing a decision earlier than that, though — in time for the September meetings of the massive International Union for Conservation of Nature that is expected to bring more than 10,000 scientists and conservationists to Honolulu. That conference will provide a global spotlight for a historic decision of international importance and serve as an opportunity for Hawaii to show its regard for the physical environment that makes our islands and the waters around them one of the most iconic destinations in the world.

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