Irreverent might be the best way to describe Kitty Simonds’ feelings about the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, a 10-day event currently taking place at the Hawaii Convention Center.

“It’s all about making money,” Simonds said as she looked dismissively at two preteens taking selfies with cardboard cut-outs of elephants and tigers at an environmental exhibition on the convention center floor.

Simonds is the executive director of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council — or Wespac, as it’s more commonly known — a quasi-governmental agency charged with monitoring Pacific fish stocks from Hawaii and American Samoa to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

She’s a highly contentious figure in conservation circles, which made her organization’s involvement in the world’s largest environmental conference all the more curious.

In the past few years, Simonds and Wespac have worked to cut federal protections for green sea turtles, advocated for Hawaii’s fishermen to catch more bigeye tuna than they’re allowed under international agreements despite quotas designed to protect the species from overfishing, and actively opposed the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Simonds said the IUCN could have picked a better place than Hawaii to host a conservation conference if it wanted to highlight the plight of the global environment, perhaps Africa or Indonesia.

A red pencil urchin on the ocean floor at Papahanaumokuakea.
A red pencil urchin on the ocean floor at Papahanaumokuakea. James Watt

She also dismissed any criticism directed at her or Wespac for opposing the monument expansion, reiterating her long-held stance that President Barack Obama’s action does nothing to promote conservation.

Anyone who disagrees — including famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle and others who co-authored a 72-page paper expounding the cultural and biological benefits of the monument expansion — just doesn’t know what they’re talking about, she said.

“We have a well-managed fishery,” Simonds said. “We can fish anywhere and not harm anything.”

‘No Hand-To-Hand Combat’

Simond’s brazen attitude was on full display at the Hawaii Convention Center this week. The agency had its own exhibition booth alongside the likes of the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. The exhibition stuck out, too.

Many of the displays at convention center showcased the beauty of the natural environment that many of the attendees seek to preserve with photos of iconic wildlife, such as pandas and polar bears, that have become the face of the preservation movement.

Pristine ocean scenes populated with tropical fish, whales and sea turtles left out the brutal realities of the global commercial fishing trade, which has been blamed for decimating fish stocks and contributing to mass human rights abuses.

A trip to Wespac’s booth, however, was less utopian.

Kitty Simonds IUCN exhibition hall. 5 sept 2016
Kitty Simonds, right, has strong words for anyone who disagrees with her about the science behind marine protected areas, such as Papahanaumokuakea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Visitors were greeted with a giant image of a longline fishing vessel and pictures of dead tuna sliced up for sale on the auction floor of the Honolulu fish market. A white cooler, surrounded by buoys and fishnet, was filled with rubber fish.

While there was no mistaking Wespac’s viewpoints, Wespac social scientist Christopher Hawkins, who was manning the booth, said the reality is more complex.

He said the agency has made numerous decisions over the years that have reduced the conflict between fishermen and sensitive species such as sea turtles and albatross.

“We get defined as being in bed with the fishermen, but really our job is to maintain a viable fishery,” Hawkins said. “If you’re a preservationist and you think that eating fish is an evil thing then you’re going to be opposed to that. But if you’re a fisherman you’re going to have a different opinion.”

“We can fish anywhere and not harm anything.” — Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds

Hawkins admits that finding the right balance can be difficult, especially when trying to weigh the needs of the environment with those of people.

For example, if the fishery is closed in order to protect tuna and turtles, it could mean the loss of jobs for hundreds of fishermen in Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific. At a certain point it becomes a numbers game.

“We want fish for our fishermen to catch,” Hawkins said. “So it becomes a societal decision about how many fish do we want in the ocean, how many turtles do we want in the ocean, how many whales do we want in the ocean.”

At a booth merely 10 paces away, Gerald Leape, of The Pew Charitable Trust was skeptical of this outlook. Pew Charitable Trust has been at odds with Wespac for many years, particularly over tuna quotas and the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea monument.

Leape said the two agencies can work together on issues, such as regulating international purse seine vessels that net fish indiscriminately, but there are still some significant differences in their agenda.

“We’ve been far enough away that there has been no hand-to-hand combat and no conflicts,” Leape said. But “when we find things of mutual interest we can actually work together quite well.”

Making Its Voice Heard

Wespac became a voting member of the IUCN after the organization announced it would be coming to Honolulu to hold its 2016 World Conservation Congress, an event often billed as “Nature’s Olympics.”

The IUCN has more than 1,300 members who converge during a congress to discuss ongoing threats to the environment, such as climate change and the loss of species. The members then vote on various motions to help mitigate those impacts.

Those decisions can then influence global conservation discourse, from grassroots organizations in remote parts of the world all the way to the United Nations General Assembly.

At this year’s event, the IUCN will consider several high-profile motions, including one that calls for a ban of domestic ivory sales in order to curb the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa.

But Wespac officials are particularly concerned with two interrelated motions that aim to protect large swaths of the ocean from overfishing and other activities that could be detrimental to the marine environment.

An Expand Papahanaummokuakea supporter holds a sign during Fishing Means Food rally held in the Capitol Rotunda. 26 july 2016
The expansion of Papahanaummokuakea pitted longline fishermen against conservationists. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One motion aims to place 30 percent of the world’s oceans into marine protected areas by 2030, a plan that Hawaii Gov. David Ige seemed to support in part when he said the state should “effectively manage” 30 percent of its own nearshore ocean waters.

The other motion would urge the UN to create an international legal body to oversee marine conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity on the high seas, a lawless territory residing outside national jurisdictions.

Rick Gaffney is the president of the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association and has been a vocal critic of Wespac. He says Wespac’s decision to join the IUCN is purely strategic — to protect the interests of longline fishermen.

Any move to infringe upon their ability to catch fish, he said, and Wespac comes to their defense.

“To have them at the IUCN is kind of a slap in the face of what the World Conservation Congress is all about,” Gaffney said of Wespac. “They don’t really have a place at the IUCN because they basically disregard science.”

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