Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry leaders are not finished fighting the fourfold expansion of a U.S. marine monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
President Barack Obama signed a proclamation in August to make Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument the world’s largest protected natural area after several months of intense lobbying for and against the proposal.
Now the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which actively opposed the expansion, wants the government to study the potential effects and find ways to alleviate them.
“The impacts to the Hawaii fishing and seafood industries and indigenous communities as a result of monument expansion are considerable,” Council Chair Edwin Ebisui Jr. said in a statement Friday. “The Council will write to the President about these and request the Department of Commerce to mitigate them.”
Wespac sets fisheries management policies for a 1.5-million-square-mile area and advises the National Marine Fisheries Service on how to minimize bycatch, protect habitat and prevent overfishing.
The latest wave of opposition to the monument rolled in earlier this month at the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee meeting in Honolulu.
New committee member Ray Hilborn, a prominent marine biologist from the University of Washington, railed against large marine protected areas.
“It’s just absurd,” Hilborn said, referring to his contention that world leaders are trying to outdo each other by setting aside huge swaths of ocean.
“We seem to be in this contest to see who can have the biggest one,” he said, drawing laughs from committee members.
Hilborn spoke at length about how large marine protected areas, such as Papahanaumokuakea, do nothing to combat global warming, address land-based runoff, improve species diversity, stop illegal fishing or prevent spills.
He did note later that the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 probably would not have happened inside a protected monument because tankers would not be operating inside it.
“They’re not doing anything for the real threats to the ocean,” Hilborn said, calling marine protected areas “a form of fake protection.”
Hilborn also blasted the groups and scientists who push federal governments to create marine reserves.
He took shots at The Pew Charitable Trusts, for instance, which wants to preserve 30 percent of the world’s oceans to help address climate change and protect species and habitat. Pew was closely involved with the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea.
Hilborn said Sylvia Earle, a highly esteemed marine biologist who was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s chief scientist, is foolish in her quest to close oceans to fishing.
“She knows nothing about the environment,” Hilborn said. “She knows nothing about humanity.”
Earle, National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence since 1998, has advocated for a “global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.” She was a featured speaker at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 10-day conference last month in Honolulu.
Hilborn said he feels like he is one of the few scientists willing to speak out against the proclaimed benefits of large marine protected areas, particularly when it comes to improving biodiversity. He said all that happens is fishing efforts shift to another area.
He has pushed his argument in the media, most recently through a column online on Fox News, an organization he said he reluctantly went to after failing to get it published in The New York Times.
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds, who sent letters to Obama urging him to not expand the monument, summed up her reaction to Hilborn’s presentation in one word: “Ditto.”
“We’re not very happy about all of this,” Simonds said. “I don’t think our government cares about science.”
Alan Friedlander, a University of Hawaii scientist who specializes in fisheries science and marine conservation biology, disagreed with Hilborn’s statements about the value of large-scale marine protected areas.
“They definitely protect and enhance biodiversity by conserving the entire ecosystem from land to the deep depths of the sea,” he said in a later interview, adding that seamounts provide a habitat for species that are are specific to an area.
Friedlander pointed at Hancock Seamount north of Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as an example. He said it was heavily fished in the 1970s and has not recovered, highlighting the fragility of isolated seamounts.
“With deep sea mining now a reality, it is even more important to protect deep sea habitat, which we know little about but likely take hundreds to thousands of years to recover from disturbance,” he said.
Large-scale marine protected areas also protect the open ocean environment for species like tuna and marlin, Friedlander said.
“Although ahi have the ability to move great distances, they spawn in Hawaiian waters and spend nearly all of their lives in Hawaii so their protection benefits fisheries in the main Hawaiian Islands,” he said. “Protection of ahi stocks also benefits seabirds, which prey on the baitfish that ahi drive to the surface while feeding.”
The council decided last week to ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to analyze various impacts of the monument expansion, which closed commercial fishing in approximately 61 percent of the U.S. exclusive economic zone around the Hawaiian archipelago, according to Wespac.
The longliners target bigeye tuna, highly valued by fresh sashimi markets, in the exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles around the island chain, but they mostly fish in international waters.
Justin Hospital, a NMFS socio-economist, reported earlier this month at the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee meeting that from 2010 to 2015, the longliners caught on average 6.7 percent of their overall tuna harvest and 11.6 percent of their swordfish harvest inside the now-restricted monument area.
That equates to roughly $7.8 million a year when adjusted for inlation, he said.
But, he added, “a lot of the economic impact may take some time to materialize.”
Part of the challenge in forecasting economic impact is the fishermen can make up that lost share by going elsewhere in the Pacific. There could be additional costs for fuel, or additional travel days, but those figures are tough to estimate.
The U.S. bigeye tuna fishermen, predominantly based in Honolulu, were allowed to catch 3,554 tons of bigeye this year. They hit that limit in July, but resumed fishing after working out a deal with Pacific Island territories to purhase their unused quotas.