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NADI, Fiji — Uncertainty continues to loom over what a Donald Trump presidency will mean for the recently expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and federal fishing policies in general.
Will he work to revoke President Barack Obama’s executive order creating the world’s biggest protected marine area? Who will the president-elect tap to head the departments that oversee ocean- and land-management issues?
Many are watching from Fiji, where representatives from more than two dozen countries have gathered to discuss tuna policies and other matters under the purview of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.
“We’re very uncertain about that,” said Noah Idechong, the Republic of Palau’s former House speaker who now advises its government on ocean policies.
But he said it would be very difficult for Trump to undo the national monuments that a previous president created — not just legally, which would require an act of Congress, but politically.
As the U.S. lingers in “wait-and-see mode,” as some commission observers put it, progress is continuing, at least in Palau.
The small island nation 4,700 miles west of Hawaii won’t be debating whether to protect the environment. Instead, Palau’s challenge has become how.
In October 2015, Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed a bill to protect roughly 193,000 square miles of ocean — an area bigger than his country.
He declared the move “essential to our survival,” noting the threats of climate change and economic security. Palau sees more value in tourism than commercial fishing, making the preservation of the country’s natural resources a crucial component.
Remengesau has flown to Honolulu twice in the past year in part to tout Palau’s environmental positions but also to support the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea. He did so first at the International Coral Reef Symposium in June and then at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s conference in September.
The law includes a prohibition on commercial fishing in all but 20 percent of Palau’s waters. (The quadrupling of Papahanaumokuakea increased its size to nearly 600,000 square miles, representing 61 percent of all Hawaiian waters but just a fraction of all those under exclusive U.S. control.)
As a small island nation, Palau has had to look outside for funding and technical expertise to effectively establish its reserve and enforce its boundaries.
Idechong has been working with The Nature Conservancy to boost measures designed to hold the fishing industry accountable.
“I don’t want gloom and doom but I don’t want to keep banging my head against the wall,” he said Wednesday. “So we’re trying to do more from the outside to push things up.”
Mark Zimring, director of the conservancy’s Indo-Pacific Tuna Program, said there’s been progress in improving the monitoring of commercial fishing vessels, for instance.
The nonprofit has cooperative agreements with Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and another is pending with the Solomon Islands.
He said there are “foundational gaps” in the scientific and compliance data, especially in the longline industry, which only has 2 percent observer coverage on boats.
“You don’t have the information you need to set the rules of the game right,” he said, not to mention enforce those rules.
One step The Nature Conservancy has taken together with Pacific island nations is adding video surveillance equipment on a handful of commercial fishing boats that agreed to participate.
Cameras are set up to capture what fish and bycatch are being reeled in. The goal is to gain a more accurate picture of what’s actually being caught since underreporting is believed to be a major issue.
The conservancy’s problem is handling the incredible amount of footage being recorded.
It can take 10 hours for a single longline boat to reel in the miles of fishing line and thousands of hooks it casts, Zimring said. And that gets multiplied by the amount of trips and number of boats going out.
Zimring, who’s based in California, is hoping the technology community might come up with an innovative solution, and a $150,000 competition has been set up.
He said if it’s possible for Facebook to have facial recognition software that identifies him in a photo he just uploaded, it should be possible to have a similar program that flags sharks or turtles as they are reeled in with all the tuna.
The group is moving forward with a five-country, 20- to 30-vessel monitoring project to get started.
“Technology is not a panacea,” Zimring said. “But right now we know less about our oceans than we do about other planets.”
Idechong said he’s taking advantage of the tuna commission’s annual meeting this week at the Sheraton Fiji Resort to network with other non-governmental organizations to help his country and others with various initiatives.
He’s avoiding some of the large meetings that the commission holds in favor of working the hallways for expediency’s sake.
“I see a lot of room for reform quickly,” he said. “It’s not simply meeting, meeting, meeting, debating, debating, debating.”
Palau is also looking to other countries and U.S. states for lessons on sustainably managing fish stocks. Idechong held up Alaska, which has a massive salmon fishery, as an example.
He said Palau sent a delegation to Honolulu, among other places, but Hawaii may have more to learn than teach.
“Hawaii is good, it’s great — it’s not the model we want,” Idechong said.
Unlike the United States, Palau can’t count on huge infusions of cash from the federal government that Hawaii has relied to build infrastructure for its commercial fishing industry, which is predominantly longliners who target bigeye tuna.
Hawaii has also lost touch with its traditions that could guide the path forward, Idechong said.
“They’ve lost so much of their culture,” he said, noting how Palau has kept its traditional decision-making processes alive through “consensus-building, respect and trust.”
That sentiment is not lost on government officials back in the Aloha State.
Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case said in an interview last month that Palau, Fiji and other Pacific island nations have served as examples for the state as it moves toward more community-based subsistence fishing areas like the one Gov. David Ige approved last year for Kauai’s north shore.