Burgeoning grass-root groups are ramping up their campaigns for and against the proposed expansion of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as President Obama weighs whether he should single-handedly create the world’s biggest marine reserve around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Supporters are pushing the president to decide by September when Hawaii hosts the World Conservation Congress during a 10-day international event that’s expected to draw thousands of people. But critics say that’s not enough time to thoroughly evaluate the proposal and they warn of its impacts to the commercial fishing industry.
Much like in an election, the deluge of information can leave the public struggling to separate fact from fiction. And it can be even harder to know who’s behind the messaging, especially since it’s not subject to state or federal campaign finance disclosure laws.
Opponents of the expansion are predominantly people tied to the commercial fishing industry who are receiving a helping hand from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, or Wespac, which sets fishery management policies for a 1.5 million-square-mile area.
Supporters are mostly conservationists and scientists. They are receiving assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts, a major non-governmental organization that works to protect the environment.
Fishing Means Food has already taken to TV to sway residents, which is a strategy that supporters of the monument’s expansion say they may soon implement.
In one ad that ran last month on Oceanic Time Warner Cable, a woman is asked what the monument expansion would mean. Looking into the camera, she tells viewers: “I wouldn’t be able to eat fresh local fish anymore.”
Even under the proposal to make the monument four times bigger, ultimately encompassing an area of almost 600,000 square miles, the statement is untrue. Commercial fishermen say they catch on average 8 percent of their annual allotment of bigeye tuna there, but are free to make up that difference by catching ahi elsewhere in the Pacific.
Longline fishermen target bigeye for the high prices the migratory fish fetches in local sashimi markets. The longliners hauled in 27 million pounds of fish overall in 2013, with a dockside value of $85.4 million.
In the past few years, the longliners have hit the limit for the number of pounds they are allowed to catch annually — 3,500 tons, plus additional quota purchased from Pacific Island territories — long before year’s end. That’s expected to happen again in 2016.
The ad, which is still circulating online, goes on to claim that Native Hawaiians in particular don’t want the expansion, although the proposal originated in January with a group of seven prominent Hawaiians asking Obama to increase the monument’s size.
The commercial refers viewers to Fishing Means Food’s new website, which describes the campaign as a coalition of chefs, local fishermen, business leaders, farmers and organizations who support continued fishing in the proposed monument expansion area. No names or phone numbers are provided on the website or during the ad.
“They’re a well-polished propaganda machine,” said Isaac “Paka” Harp, referring to Wespac. He’s a former commercial fisherman who was one of the Hawaiians who initially asked Obama to expand the monument.
Rick Gaffney, a former Wespac member who has been involved with fishery management issues in Hawaii since the 1970s, said the council’s campaigns against conservation efforts are “diversionary” tactics.
“Their campaigns tend to generate a lot of noise but it’s not usually a noise that comes from a base of accuracy,” he said.
Dean Sensui, executive producer of the “Hawaii Goes Fishing” television program, produced the ad along with Stacey Hayashi, according to Lori Teranishi of iQ360, a public-relations firm hired by Fishing Means Food.
She initially told Civil Beat during an editorial board meeting last month that it wasn’t a paid ad, but rather a public service announcement. She and other representatives of Fishing Means Food at the meeting, including Hawaii Longline Association President Sean Martin and John Kaneko of the Hawaii Seafood Council, were reticent to reveal information about who was behind it.
In response to a follow-up email seeking more information, Teranishi apologized for misspeaking and said it was indeed a paid ad that Sensui and Hayashi produced.
Sensui declined to say who paid for the ad, emphasizing that “what’s important is the message. Not so much the messenger.”
Other sources, including Teranishi, said Jim Cook paid for the ad.
Cook is Martin’s business partner, and they run the Pacific Ocean Producers Fishing & Marine store in Honolulu, a go-to place for commercial fishermen. Cook could not be reached for comment.
Both have served as members and past chairs of Wespac, which shared the ad on its YouTube channel before taking it down. It was later posted by Fishing Means Food.
When asked why Wespac was sharing the ad, spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding said, “because we believe in informing the public about our model sustainable longline fisheries.”
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds actively opposes monument expansion. She sent a three-page letter to Obama in April stating the proposal offered “no marine conservation benefits” and that it would not help mitigate the impacts of climate change as scientists purport.
The Expand Papahanaumokuakea group hasn’t taken to the airwaves yet, but has organized news conferences to drum up support and touted a 72-page paper about the cultural and biological significance of the proposed expansion.
Ten people authored the paper, including famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle and Angelo Villagomez, who works for Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy team.
The paper contained carefully worded passages that can leave a reader with the impression that commercial fishing could devastate marine life in the proposed expansion area.
“These ancient corals, black corals (Leiopathes sp.) and gold corals (Gerardia sp.), found to be as old as 4,265 and 2,742 years, respectively, create ornate, forest-like structures that would take hundreds or thousands of years to recover if disturbed by destructive fishing activities such as bottom-trawling,” the paper said.
But Wespac banned bottom trawling in 1986.
Civil Beat columnist and Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Peter Apo, speaking for himself, said Pew is “very crafty” and believes the group is behind the entire expansion effort.
Seth Horstmeyer, director of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy, said the organization has been involved with conservation efforts in Palau, French Polynesia and Britain. He said the group saw an opportunity in Hawaii to partner with community members and local groups because of a shared goal of creating large marine reserves.
He said the opposition they’ve encountered is not uncommon.
“But when it comes to industrial-scale fishing, the science is telling us this is needed,” Horstmeyer said, noting that 1,500 scientists from around the world signed a letter last month to Obama supporting the expansion.
Pew was involved with the original designation in 2006 by President George W. Bush of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, which was renamed Papahanaumokuakea in 2007. Horstmeyer said the group got involved with the expansion effort six months ago.
Gaffney, president of the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association, said Wespac’s standard operating procedure is to immediately oppose any proposal for conservation.
“Clearly that’s illogical,” he said. “We’re living in times of dramatic changes to the ocean which are going to have impacts on fisheries and fisheries management, so some conservation measures are going to need to be considered, and fairly.”
Martin said his concern isn’t so much the monument’s expansion as its restriction on commercial fishing. Over the years, he said fishermen have steadily lost places where they can operate.
“We need to be able to fish where the fish are,” he said.
William Aila, deputy chairman of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and one of the Hawaiians to call on Obama to expand the monument, said he understands why the commercial fishermen are concerned about the proposal but doesn’t think it will have the $7 million financial impact they claim.
“The sky is not going to fall,” Aila said. “This is a place that’s very spiritual and very important to protect.”
Both sides say they want public input to be part of the process in deciding whether to expand the monument and they see it as an opportunity to get past the rhetoric. Although it’s not required by law, federal officials are said to be planning two public meetings in Hawaii — one on Oahu and the other on Kauai. Dates have not been set.
Members of the Fishing Means Food coalition include the Seafood Council; the Hawaii Longline Association; the Fishing Tales with Mike Sakamoto organization; United Fishing Agency; Roy Yamaguchi, chef and founder of Roy’s restaurants; Nico Chaize, Nico’s Pier 38; Wayde Ueoka, MW Restaurant; Michelle Ueoka, MW Restaurant; Guy Tamashiro, Tamashiro Market; Dean Okimoto, Nalo Farms; Russell Siu, 3660 On the Rise restaurant; George Mavrothalassitis, Chef Mavro restaurant; Lee Ann Wong, Koko Head Cafe; Dean Sensui, Hawaii Goes Fishing; and Stacey Hayashi, author. Teranishi said the list is growing.
Horstmeyer said the list of people supporting Expand Papahanaumokuakea is increasing. See below for the latest tally.