The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council is wasting no time seeking financial compensation for those in the fishing industry who may claim they have been harmed by President Barack Obama’s expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in late August.

At its meeting last month — shortly after being advised by counsel of restrictions on lobbying legislatures or the president for funds — the council decided to send a letter to Obama highlighting the expansion’s impacts on Hawaii fishing and seafood industries and indigenous communities and requesting that the Department of Commerce mitigate those impacts through “direct compensation to fishing sectors.”

The council’s letter will also include a request that the ban on commercial fishing in the expansion area — which includes the waters between 50 and 200 nautical miles off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — be phased in. The letter will also ask for “other programs that would directly benefit those impacted from the monument expansion.”

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

Compensation for fisheries closures in federal waters is not unprecedented. In 2005, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reimbursed the Hawaii Longline Association $2.2 million for legal expenses tied to the group’s lawsuit opposing a temporary closure of the swordfish fishery. Also, as part of the same $5 million federal grant that funded the reimbursement, lobster and bottomfish fishers displaced by the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve established by President Bill Clinton also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct compensation and funds for fisheries research.

With regard to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, after it was first established by President George W. Bush in 2006, then-Sen. Daniel Inouye inserted an earmark in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2007 that provided more than $6 million to NMFS for a “capacity reduction program.” That program allowed vessel owners with permits to fish for lobster or bottomfish in the NWHI to be paid the economic value of their permits if they chose to stop fishing well ahead of the date all commercial fishing was to end in the monument, June 15, 2011.

Unlike the bottomfish and lobster fisheries, however, the Hawaii longline fishery catches the vast majority of its haul in waters outside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the NWHI. And while the reserve and original monument designations permanently closed the door on the former two fisheries, this year’s monument expansion merely forces the longline fleet to shift its effort eastward at a time when it’s already doing that on its own.

Even so, Wespac is pushing for a compensation package for fishers inconvenienced by the monument expansion. Whether or not it’s the council’s place to ask for it is questionable.

In his ethics presentation to the council given shortly before it voted to ask Obama for money for the “fishing sector,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) general counsel Fred Tucher advised the council that it cannot use its federal grant to lobby any legislature or the executive branch for more money. The council could be in the clear since it’s asking for money not for itself, but for others. In any case, co-counsel Elena Onaga told the council to run the letter by the NOAA’s financial assistance attorneys before sending it out.

Economic Losses

Just how much, if anything, should the federal government shell out to compensate these “fishing sectors”?

Justin Hospital, head of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s (PIFSC) socioeconomics program, has done a preliminary analysis of what the economic impacts of the monument expansion might be. In a presentation to the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) last month, he described the maximum direct economic losses likely to be suffered by the Hawaii deep-set and shallow-set longline fleets.

Between 2010 and 2015, the fleets caught 9.2 percent of their total in the EEZ surrounding the NWHI, he said. In the monument expansion area, the fleets caught less than seven percent of their total pounds.

Fishermen watch a rally in July from a longline fishing vessel at Pier 38 in Honolulu.
Fishermen watch a rally in July from a longline fishing vessel at Pier 38 in Honolulu. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Hospital’s data suggest that the expansion will affect the shallow-set fleet, which targets swordfish, more than it will the deep-set fleet, which targets bigeye tuna. The swordfish fleet got about 10 percent of its revenue from the expansion area, while the bigeye tuna fleet got about 6.2 percent of its revenue there, he said. In total, the two fleets would lose about $7.8 million in revenue if their effort in the expansion area ended altogether, he said.

With regard to indirect economic losses, he suggested that related industries stood to lose $9 million, household income losses could reach $4.25 million, 75 jobs could be lost, as well as about half a million in tax revenue.

Hospital emphasized that all of his projections should be considered the “upper bounds” of potential economic impacts of the expansion. “To achieve these, we’re to assume this fish is not replaced anywhere else. This is not the case. Fishermen can fish elsewhere, but to move elsewhere, there are costs,” he said.

According to PIFSC, the average cost of a deep-set trip between 2004 and 2014 was $27,842 and an average shallow-set trip cost $53,494. Net revenues per trip were $34,093 and $34,055, respectively.

Over the years, the Hawaii longline fleet has gradually increased its effort outside the U.S. EEZ so that it now sets 70 percent to 75 percent of its hooks there.

How much more the monument expansion will increase costs associated with shifting effort remains to be seen.

“These trip costs can be monitored over time to track any added costs (but) could be confounded by quota issues as well,” said Dr. Minling Pan, an SSC member and a colleague of Hospital’s at PIFSC.

Hospital told the SSC that his program will monitor trip costs, revenues, and other economic performance indicators to help discern continuing impacts of the expansion. The full council, however, wanted immediate answers. At its meeting held a week after the SSC met, Wespac asked PIFSC’s socioeconomic program to submit by the end of last month its analysis of the monument expansion’s impact on Hawaii’s longline fleet and broader fishing and seafood industries.

Concerned that the monument expansion will perhaps increase fishing pressure on yellowfin tuna, the council also asked PIFSC to analyze the change in longline effort around the Main Hawaiian Islands due to the monument expansion in relation to troll-caught yellowfin.

Fleet Has Enjoyed Record Catches

Seth Hostmeyer, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy, told Environment Hawaii that he’d like to see proof of any economic losses in the fishing sector first. He pointed out that in 2014, Wespac representatives argued that the establishment of the Pacific Remote Island Area Marine National Monument would be devastating to the Hawaii longline fleet, yet after the monument was created, the fleet had a record catch.

“Their messages aren’t adding up,” he said, adding that he doubted there will be any evidence of economic harm as a result of the Papahanaumokuakea expansion. That the Hawaii fleet recently hit its bigeye tuna quota in record time and is seeking to increase quota transfers from Pacific island territories proves that it is confident it’s going to continue to catch a lot of fish, he said.

Horstmeyer speculated that even if there were proof of some economic loss, it’s “highly unlikely” the federal government will provide financial compensation. In the past, such funds reached Hawaii via earmarks, which have since been banned. He said in today’s Congress, getting new money into the budget is challenging.

What’s more, arguing for compensation would be “hard to get when you’re paying your crew 70 cents an hour or wages certainly below minimum wage,” he said, citing a recent Associated Press report on poor working conditions suffered by some of the Hawaii longline fleet’s foreign crew.

Paying crews the federal minimum wage might cost more than whatever additional fuel might be required as a result of the monument expansion, Horstmeyer said.

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