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Government officials from the United States and three of its territories are working to undermine President Barack Obama’s marine conservation legacy less than four months after he left office.
Obama used his executive authority in August to dramatically expand protected areas in the Pacific, the largest being the four-fold expansion last summer of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which now covers 583,000 square miles in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
But with the Trump administration taking over in January, commercial fishermen and others who vehemently opposed the expansion of that monument and other marine preserves have renewed the fight.
Officials representing American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas want the monument designations to be repealed or at least have the restrictions relaxed.
They have been joined in their efforts by the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils nationwide. Wespac is an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency that oversees environmental protection of the ocean.
Wespac officials, including Executive Director Kitty Simonds and Council Chair Edwin Ebisui Jr., are urging President Donald Trump to remove fishing prohibitions within the marine monuments and re-establish the councils’ supervision of the fisheries. They say that limiting access in huge swaths of the ocean is hurting local fishermen and Americans who work in the fishing industry without significantly improving the prospects for the wildlife the preserve is intended to protect.
One of the slides was titled “Make America Great Again” — Trump’s campaign slogan — and proposed having the committee “request the Trump administration remove the monument fishing provisions,” which would return management of these waters to the councils.
Leaders of the eight councils followed up with a March 1 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.
“Our experience with marine monument designations to date is that they are counterproductive to domestic fishery goals, as they have displaced and concentrated U.S. fishing effort into less productive fishing grounds and increased dependency on foreign fisheries that are not as sustainably managed as United States fisheries,” they wrote.
Wespac followed up at its meeting last month with a decision to have Ebisui send his own letter to Trump asking him to remove fishing prohibitions within the marine monuments in the U.S. Pacific islands.
Simonds said in a March 23 release that the governors of American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas have already sent similar requests to the president.
The efforts by Wespac to loosen the fishing restrictions within the monuments are at odds with statements officials made at the time about abiding by them.
“If a presidential proclamation is issued to modify the existing monument, the Council will support it,” a Wespac spokeswoman said in July, one month before Obama expanded Papahanaumokuakea.
Simonds wasn’t available for comment last week.
The marine sanctuaries in question include Papahanaumokuakea, the Rose Atoll National Monument, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.
All were created or expanded by presidential proclamation within the past decade. Some of the same groups who helped establish the current monuments — namely, The Pew Charitable Trusts — are working to add additional protections to at least one of the monuments.
Wespac plans to tell the secretary of Commerce that it is concerned about a proposal by Pew to overlay a national marine sanctuary on the Marianas Trench monument. In a release, Wespac says it is worried about the “scope of the proposal, federal overreach, regulatory duplication and increased administrative costs.”
More than 50 percent of the nation’s exclusive economic zone for American fishing in the western Pacific region has been declared off-limits in this manner to the American fishing industry, according to Wespac. The zone extends out 200 miles from the shores of U.S. islands.
A coalition of Native Hawaiians, fishers, scientists and environmentalists protested Wespac officials’ actions outside its meeting last month. The group followed up with a letter to Hawaii’s congressional delegation that questioned whether Wespac’s actions violated laws prohibiting the use of federal funds to lobby the executive and legislative branches under certain circumstances.
Representatives from nine groups, including Earthjustice, Sierra Club and the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association, signed the nine-page letter dated March 21.
“Council leaders’ vehement opposition to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument expansion and their lopsided support for commercial fishing interests run counter to the Council’s fundamental duty to protect marine fishery resources and to serve the long-term public interest in maintaining healthy ecosystems,” they wrote.
The group highlighted in their letter how Papahanaumokuakea’s coral reefs support 7,000 marine species, habitat for the threatened green sea turtle, endangered Hawaiian monk seal, 22 species of seabirds, and four bird species found nowhere else, including the endangered Laysan duck.
Native Hawaiians consider the site to be sacred, and the monument also includes historic resources from the Battle of Midway and 19th-century commercial whaling.
The months-long battle last year over the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea pitted commercial fishermen against conservationists. Their efforts at times felt like election campaigns, complete with TV advertisements and heavy lobbying of Hawaii legislators, governors past and present, restauranteurs and members of the Hawaii’s congressional delegation.
The fishermen argued that the expansion would restrict access to an area where Hawaii longliners catch on average 8 percent of their annual limit for bigeye tuna, a roughly $100 million industry in Hawaii.
But environmentalists and others maintained that the benefits of protecting these waters far outweigh the drawbacks, pointing at how the fishermen are free to make up their lost catch elsewhere in the Pacific.
While many of the arguments remain the same, the fight has shifted from taking place mostly in Hawaii to Washington, D.C.
At a congressional hearing in March, Rep. Aumea Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa said that the marine monuments were not entirely to blame for industry cutbacks, but exacerbated existing problems. Fishing is a highly competitive industry where other countries pay their workers lower wages and do not follow the same fishing restrictions as American fishing boats.
“The economy of American Samoa depends on fishing, more than any other state or territory,” said Radewagen. “In fact, over 80 percent of our local revenue is generated by our local tuna cannery. The impact these marine monuments have had on Samoa can not be overstated.”
In December, Samoa Tuna Processors suspended its tuna-canning operations in American Samoa, which caused about 800 employees to lose their jobs, according to Pacific Islands Fishery News. Two months earlier, another large canning operation in American Samoa, StarKist Samoa, shut down for several days because of a shortage of fish.
But some Pacific Islanders remain committed to the monument. The hearing in Washington last month at which Radewagen spoke was conducted by the House Committee on Water, Power and Oceans. Also speaking was Rep. Gregorio Kililli Camacho Sablan, a Democratic delegate from the Northern Marianas, who said he believed Wespac’s leaders were out of bounds.
“These activities are inappropriate at the very least, and show that Wespac supports the fishing industry at the expense of marine conservation that benefits all Americans,” Sablan said.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii was instrumental in the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea. He said Thursday that he continues to support the monument designations and that it is “exceedingly unlikely” that opponents will be able to undo them.
“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,” he said.
As of Thursday, Hawaii’s longline fishermen had already hauled in more than half the amount of bigeye tuna they are allowed to catch this year.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission — a treaty-based organization of 26 members including Pacific island nations, the United States, Japan, China and South Korea — decides how to manage and conserve highly migratory fish stocks like tuna while reducing bycatch and ensuring the overall sustainability of one of the world’s biggest sources of protein.
The commission sets the limits for how much bigeye tuna each member nation can catch. For 2017, the U.S. longline fleet of 140 vessels, almost entirely based in Honolulu, has a quota of 3,345 tons, or 7.4 million pounds, in the Western and Central Pacific. The fleet had caught 1,669 tons by last week.
Hawaii’s tuna fishermen have hit the quota limit early for the past four years. Last year, the fleet hit its 3,554-ton limit for bigeye, one of two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii, by late July.
But quota-sharing deals between the fishermen and U.S. territories let them resume fishing shortly thereafter. The deals let the fishermen go for another 1,000 tons of tuna per territory that they have an agreement with in exchange for payments of $275,000 into a fund that the territories can use for harbor improvements.
Read the letter the eight regional fishing councils sent to President Trump:
Read the letter that a coalition of organizations sent to members of the Hawaii congressional delegation: