Believe it or not, there was a time in American history when caring about and protecting the environment was not a deeply partisan issue. Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s, as issues like acid rain and the ozone hole popped up in the public consciousness, bipartisan support ushered in a slew of environmental legislation aimed at protecting human health as well as conserving natural resources.
But this is 2017, and in our hyper-partisan, super-polarized world, not even the most common sense environmental acts are safe from political retribution.
Case in point: Last August, then-President Barack Obama greatly expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The move was widely heralded, including by Civil Beat, as an important step in protecting our oceans and marine life — both of which face serious uphill battles against climate change.
But the move was also tied, inevitably, to Obama’s legacy — his legacy as a former Hawaii resident as well as his legacy as a conservationist (Obama placed 548 million acres of habitat under protection during his tenure). But practically as soon as Obama left office, those opposed to the expansion — namely commercial fishermen — began the process of lobbying Trump to undo the effort.
And they’re definitely playing hardball.
In February, officials from the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council included President Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in a presentation that called for removing the marine monument’s fishing provisions.
By March 1, according to a recent Civil Beat story, leaders of the eight regional fishery councils sent a letter to Trump “explaining why they thought it was bad policy to keep American fishing vessels out of the monuments, saying it has ‘disrupted’ the councils’ ability to manage the fisheries and eliminated the vessels’ ability to act as ‘watchdogs’ over U.S. fishing grounds threatened by foreign fleets.”
This is shrewd politics — Trump loves nothing more than feeling like he’s righting the wrongs an evil and out-of-touch Obama inflicted on good, hard-working Americans — but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to understand Wespac’s real gripe with the monument.
In short, the area open to commercial fishermen — including the Hawaii-based longline fleet — has been drastically reduced. That means less area under under exclusive U.S. control.
Wespac has historically been on the side of commercial fishers even though the regulatory body was established to “prevent overfishing, minimize bycatch and protect fish stocks and habitat.” But Trump’s election has made Wespac more bold.
Commercial longline fishers — and politicians speaking on their behalf — have long argued that the marine monument would impede the fishing industry’s ability to catch bigeye tuna. But this is hardly true.
The fishing industry takes only about 8 percent of its annual bigeye tuna haul from Papahanaumokuakea waters. What’s more, the industry regularly reaches its total quota way before the year is over, meaning it’s not struggling to find or catch bigeye tuna.
As Sen. Brian Schatz pointed out Thursday, “Our fishery had their best year ever last year and is on track to do even better this year so the idea that this diminished either their profitability or our ability to eat fish has been laid to waste.”
Commercial longline fishers may have to travel a touch farther and work a bit harder to reach their annual catch limit for the prize fish, but it is unfair and misleading to say that protecting Papahanaumokuakea significantly impedes their livelihoods.
Especially because protecting Papahanaumokuakea is so important.
President Theodore Roosevelt first protected parts of Papahanaumokuakea in 1903. But given how remote the archipelago is, relatively little is known or understood about it. What we do know, however, suggests that this area is exceptionally rare and teeming with life. Recent research expeditions to some of the area’s extensive coral reefs have uncovered the world’s oldest living animal — a 4,500-year-old black coral — as well as several newly discovered species.
As many scientists have already pointed out, the prevalence of genetic variation and diversity in the area could be a great opportunity for adaptation and resilience in the battle against ocean warming and acidification.
That’s a battle that everyone has a stake in — regardless of minor business interests, party affiliations, or imagined “turf” wars. President Trump should resist taking the bait on this one and leave the monument protections in place.
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