Updated 3:20 p.m., 7/26/2017

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council held an unprecedented emergency meeting Monday to approve a letter urging the Trump Administration to maintain 11 marine reserves that are under federal review, including Papahanaumokuakea in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order April 28 implementing his America-First Offshore Energy Strategy, which is exploring opening up protected ocean areas to wind farms and mining for oil, natural gas and methane hydrates.

The advisory council’s letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was one of hundreds that came in just ahead of Wednesday’s deadline for public comments. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened the comment period June 26.

Sol Kaho’ohalahala, right, chair of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, and Allen Tom, left, from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Courtesy of Maui Ocean Center

Update Later Wednesday, NOAA announced that it would extend the public comment period until Aug. 14, “due to public interest and requests for additional time.” Comments can be submitted electronically through regulations.gov here.

“We recommend that the Secretary reject any attempts to engage in energy or mineral exploration or production or any other activities that are not conducive to the continued conservation and protection of the six national marine sanctuaries and five marine national monuments under review,” Solomon Pili Kaho’ohalahala, the council’s chair, wrote in the letter.

The 52-member group includes government officials, Native Hawaiians, commercial fishers, businessmen, conservationists, educators, scientists and community representatives. They met via teleconference on Tuesday. 

Eric Kingma of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, known as Wespac, cast the lone “no” vote.

He said Wespac supports lifting the ban on commercial fishing, which runs counter to the advisory council’s letter.

“We’ve never supported the full expansion of Papahanaumokuakea,” he said, noting how Wespac does not believe the acreage supports the reasons for the designation.

In August, President Barack Obama quadrupled the size of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which President George W. Bush created in 2006. At nearly 600,000 square miles, it was the biggest protected reserve at the time.

The advisory council’s letter notes that the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was created by Congress in 1992 to protect humpback whales and their habitat in Hawaii. While it’s not under federal review, the letter says the Papahanaumokuakea expansion area is used by humpback whales when they winter in Hawaii to mate, give birth and nurse their young.

The expanded area also protects habitat and travel routes for highly mobile predators, such as tiger and Galapagos sharks, and 24 species of whales and dolphins, including endangered sperm whales, fin whales and sei whales, according to the council’s letter.

Important geological features are also located in the expanded acreage, the letter says, including more than 75 seamounts and a non-volcanic ridge. These features form biodiverse hotspots that provide habitat for deep-sea species, including sponges, fish and ancient colonies of corals.

Black coral, the longest known living marine organism at upwards of 4,500 years, is found in the proposed expansion area of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Courtesy: Christopher Kelley/Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory

Trump has also ordered a broader review of 27 national monuments that were designated or expanded since 1996 under the Antiquities Act. That two-month comment period, which ended July 10, drew almost 1.5 million comments.

Michael Tosatto, NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office administrator, has said the idea behind the additional review for marine reserves was to plug gaps in the information being collected in the broader monuments review.

The Trump administration has not indicated what it will do with Papahanaumokuakea or the other marine monuments under review, which include the Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll.

No president has ever undone a national monument, but there have been size reductions.

The Federal Register, the government system managing the public comments on Trump’s executive orders, is not the only place where the battle over marine monuments has been playing out.

Members of Congress have been looking into the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which created the regional fishery management councils, and the appropriateness of presidents using the Antiquities Act to unilaterally create large protected areas.

During an oversight hearing last week, Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah questioned Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, about the impacts of Papahanaumokuakea’s expansion on the $100 million commercial longline tuna industry based in Honolulu.

Martin, a former Wespac chair, told the oversight committee that marine monuments designated under the Antiquities Act have effectively closed off fishing in half of the U.S. exclusive zones in the western Pacific.

This NOAA map shows the U.S. exclusive economic zone boundaries and four marine national monuments. Courtesy: NOAA Fisheries

However, Hawaii’s fleet of roughly 140 longline tuna vessels mostly fishes in international waters.

When asked by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman of California how the industry has been doing since Papahanaumokuakea was expanded, Martin said there has been “no trouble in catching fish.”

As of July 17, the longliners had caught 82 percent of their annual limit of 3,345 tons of bigeye tuna in the western and central Pacific, according to NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office.

Environmentalists and others have been working with Earthjustice lawyers to be prepared for the Trump administration’s decision on the marine monuments.

William Aila, deputy director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and a key proponent of the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea, said “there certainly will be legal action should there be a rollback.”

“It’s fortunate that we have strong legal folks that are building their case,” he said last week at the Hawaii Conservation Conference in Honolulu.

Federal officials will be sifting through the mountain of public testimony over the coming weeks. They will be weighing letters from the thousands of individuals, governors, state agencies and groups like Wespac and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

Read the advisory council’s letter below: 

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