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Federal officials are still reviewing whether changes should be made to more than two dozen national monuments that were established to preserve fragile ecosystems, culturally sensitive areas and historic sites throughout the Pacific Ocean and U.S. mainland — including Pahanaumokuakea in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
More than 442,000 comments have been submitted since the Interior Department asked for the public’s input in May following an executive order by President Donald Trump, whose administration is considering opening some protected places to mining, ranching, fishing and other commercial activities.
The comments overwhelmingly support leaving the monuments alone. But not everyone feels each voice should carry the same weight — especially those supportive of Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry.
Edwin Ebisui, who chairs a federal group that manages fish stocks in nearly 1.5 million square miles of the Pacific, said it’s easy to quantify the comments and just throw out a number. But he said that’s just “an indication of who has the most effective social media network.”
His colleagues on the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, known as Wespac, hold similar views.
“The people that are involved should have a little more say than fourth-graders from Kansas,” Wespac member McGrew Rice said at the council’s meeting last week in Honolulu.
Michael Tosatto, NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office administrator, said his agency is in “data-collection mode.”
“We will treat all commenters fairly,” he said.
The public comment period for the 27 national monuments under review ends July 10. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened up a new review and comment period Monday that’s specific to marine reserves and narrower in scope.
It includes Papahanaumokuakea, the Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll and eight other reserves that were designated or expanded since April 28, 2007. This review stems from Trump’s executive order implementing his America-First Offshore Energy Strategy, which is looking at opening up protected ocean areas to wind farms and mining for oil, natural gas and methane hydrates. The deadline for public comments on this review is July 26.
Tosatto said the idea behind the additional review for marine reserves is to plug gaps in the information being collected in the broader monuments review.
He said the Interior Department has asked NOAA to lead the review of the marine monuments and that his office and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries are collecting information now.
There have been few hints about what the Trump administration may do with Papahanaumokuakea and other marine monuments under review.
No president has ever undone a national monument, but there have been size reductions.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, which Obama created in December, be scaled back, something Republican leaders in that state support.
In the meantime, federal officials sift through a barrage of public testimony.
Ebisui and Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds have sent Trump, Zinke, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other officials a letter urging them to review the need to ban fishing in certain marine reserves.
They blame “environmental activist groups” for pushing the government to create marine sanctuaries and monuments that supplant federal laws that would otherwise let Wespac advise NOAA on how best to balance commercial fishing with conservation.
Ebisui, a lawyer and part-time commercial fisherman, said it’s “insane” that the United States would bar its own fishermen from huge areas under exclusive U.S. jurisdiction for the sake of creating marine monuments.
He and his fellow council members reject the science supporting the need to protect broad swaths around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and remote atolls near the equator.
More than 500 scientists sent Trump a letter earlier this month that underscored the valuable role such reserves play in protecting fish populations and other marine life. They argue there is compelling evidence that strongly protected reserves conserve biodiversity while boosting the economy.
President George W. Bush created Papahanaumokuakea in 2006 by using his executive authority under the Antiquities Act. Employing the same powers, President Barack Obama quadrupled its size last year to include nearly 600,000 square miles, making it the world’s biggest marine reserve at the time.
Wespac members have said Hawaii’s $100 million longline industry, which targets bigeye tuna for fresh sashimi markets, would be hurt by the monument closing off 61 percent of the 200-mile U.S. exclusive economic zone around the Hawaiian Islands.
Historically, longliners have reeled in roughly 10 percent of their annual tuna catch from the expanded portion of Papahanaumokuakea. But since they operate on a quota system, they are free to make up the difference elsewhere.
As of Thursday, Hawaii’s longliners had caught 77 percent of this year’s annual allotment of 3,345 metric tons of bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific. That’s not quite as fast a pace as the last two years, but puts them on track to hit the limit well before the end of the year.
The fishermen will likely keep fishing though. Like previous years, they have financial deals in place to expand their catch limit by paying $250,000 into a federal fishery development fund in exchange for an extra 1,000 tons of bigeye from U.S. territories in the Pacific, including Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Scientists, state lawmakers, chefs, Native Hawaiians and others have written letters asking the feds to leave the monuments alone, citing historical, cultural and environmental reasons. In a letter last month to Zinke and Ross, a group of prominent players says the longline industry’s wounds are self-inflicted and the result of an unsustainable use of the annual quota system, which is being fished down at a rapid pace.
“Early indications show that putting some limits on where the longline industry can fish helps stabilize the market by slowing down how quickly the quota is met,” wrote Kekuewa Kikiloi, chair of the Papahanaumokuakea Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, Rick Gaffney, president of the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association, Robert Richmond, research professor and director of Kewalo Marine Laboratory, and five others.
“In the long run improving the health of the ocean and fish stocks with protected areas like marine monuments is a benefit to the longline industry, not a liability,” they said.
Read their letter and Wespac’s below.