Responding to an executive order from President Donald Trump, 535 marine scientists, climatologists and others have signed a letter in support of marine reserves, citing the role they play in protecting fish populations and other marine life.

The letter sent Wednesday to U.S. senators highlights the extensive scientific literature that the scientists say has provided compelling evidence that strongly protected reserves conserve biodiversity while boosting the economy.

Mark Hixon, a University of Hawaii biology professor, was among the scientists who signed the letter. He pointed at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the biggest of all the reserves that Trump has ordered the Department of Interior to review.

Clouds of reef fish and corals, French frigate shoals, NWHI
Clouds of reef fish and corals at French frigate shoals in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Courtesy: James Watt

“Papahanaumokuakea protects a broad variety of mostly unexplored shallow and deep ocean ecosystems loaded with species found nowhere else on the Earth,” he said in a press release from the Marine Conservation Institute. “Saving this treasure trove for future generations is the right thing to do.”

President George W. Bush created the monument by executive order 11 years ago to the day. President Barack Obama quadrupled its size last year, expanding it to 600,000 square miles — the world’s largest protected marine area at the time.

Hawaii’s commercial fishermen have been urging Trump to change the rules so they can fish inside the expanded area. They have received support from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which sets fishery 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.

Wespac has sent letters to Obama and Trump about how the expanded monument limits the areas that U.S. tuna fishermen can exclusively access. They mostly fish in international waters but have historically caught about 10 percent of their catch in what is now the expanded monument area.

The longline fishermen operate under a quota system, which means they can make up the difference by fishing elsewhere. Their 2017 catch limit for bigeye tuna is 3,138 tons, which they expect to hit by early September.

Jon Witman, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, said that providing permanent protection for marine life via monuments is a “win-win for all sides.”

“Although environmentalists and fishermen differ in the type of management they advocate, they both want the same thing – a healthy functioning ocean with lots of species in it that can sustain fisheries,” Witman said in a statement. “To lose the hard won protection already achieved by the establishment of the U.S. marine monuments by repeal or restriction of the Antiquities Act would be a huge step in the wrong direction.”

President Barack Obama visited Turtle Beach on Midway Atoll in September, days after he used his executive authority to quadruple the size of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which includes the atoll. Courtesy: Pete Souza/White House

Under Trump’s executive order, which he signed in late April, the Interior Department is reviewing 27 national monuments designated or expanded since 1996 under the Antiquities Act. They include Papahanaumokuakea and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is expected to use the review to determine whether each designation or expansion conforms to the policy stated in the executive order and to formulate recommendations for presidential actions, legislative proposals or other appropriate actions to carry out that policy.

As of Thursday, the feds had received more than 167,000 public comments on the monuments under review.

Within the first four days, 15,000 comments had poured into the federal government. They were running more than 100-1 against making any changes to any of the monuments, according to a Civil Beat review.

Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation Institute, whose goal is to create a worldwide system of strongly protected areas, said in the release that the monuments created by past Democratic and Republican presidents have given this country a legacy of conserving land and marine biodiversity, as well as local economies dependent on the conserved areas.

“While the unprotected ocean is like a debit account where everybody withdraws and nobody deposits, marine reserves are like savings accounts that produce interest we can live off,” Morgan said. “Scientists and a majority of the public strongly oppose undoing that legacy.”

The letter from the scientists was sent to members of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard and all members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. It was also submitted to Zinke and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who will be making recommendations to the president about whether to remove monument status from these areas, shrink boundaries or weaken current protections, according to the release.

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