WASHINGTON — The Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council was harshly criticized on Capitol Hill last week over allegations of anti-environmental lobbying and secretiveness.

U.S. Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, a Democrat who represents the Northern Marianas Islands, blasted the council known as Wespac during a hearing before the Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee.

Sablan asked for an investigation of the 16-member council’s activities, which he said include “improper lobbying,” organizing efforts to undermine environmental protections and unspecified financial conflicts of interest.

Wespac includes government officials, environmentalists and fishing industry advocates.

U.S. Rep. Gregorio Sablan of the Northern Marianas asks questions at a Capitol Hill hearing

U.S. Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, a critic of the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, questions a witness at a recent hearing.

Courtesy of Rep. Gregorio Sablan

Wespac oversees much of the South Pacific, some 1.5 million nautical miles, including the area contained in the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. It is is one of eight such fishing councils nationwide that were established to develop fishery management plans and policies to prevent overfishing and help fish stocks survive and thrive.

Members of the congressional committee, including Sablan, were questioning Chris Oliver, the new assistant administrator of fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about proposed changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The landmark 1976 law created the councils to oversee fishing in U.S. federal waters. They make decisions governing use of waters that stretch from 3 to 200 miles offshore, in what is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone.

‘Inappropriate Activities Of Wespac’

Wespac is the largest of the councils, responsible for monitoring about half of U.S.-controlled waters and thousands of individual marine species. By contrast, the Gulf of Mexico council only manages 42 species and the Mid-Atlantic council only 14.

The councils operate within NOAA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The chain of command in the agency leads up to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, an appointee of President Donald Trump.

Oliver, who was formerly executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is based in Anchorage, Alaska, joined the Trump administration in June.

Wespac Chair Edwin Ebisui confers with Executive Director Kitty Simonds during a meeting last year. Simonds did not comment on the criticism from a congressman.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

“Mr. Oliver, I have long been concerned with inappropriate activities of Wespac,” Sablan said at the Sept. 26 hearing. “In 2014, I engaged in a series of letters with your predecessors about improper lobbying activities in an effort to remove the green sea turtle from the endangered species list.”

“More recently, Wespac has been organizing and leading a national campaign to abolish marine monuments,” Sablan added.

Wespac is also refusing to provide the public and interested stakeholders with full information about its activities and how its council members vote on some issues, Sablan said. He criticized Wespac for not posting audio or transcripts of its meetings, as required by law.

He alleged that there are unacknowledged conflicts of interest within Wespac, but did not identify anyone in particular.

Sablan’s allegations were brought to the attention of Wespac spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding and Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds by Civil Beat, but neither chose to respond.

Most of the other fishing management councils make audio, video or transcripts of their meetings available to the public. They include New England, based in Massachusetts, the Mid-Atlantic, based in Dover, Del., the Caribbean, based in Puerto Rico, the Gulf of Mexico, based in Tampa, Florida, the Pacific, based in Portland, Oregon, and the North Pacific in Alaska. The two that did not appear to offer audio, video or transcripts were the South Atlantic fishing council, based in South Carolina, and Wespac, according to a review of the websites by Civil Beat.

Concerns Over Marianas Trench

At the hearing, Oliver said he was unaware of the issues Sablan was raising, and noted that there are restrictions against council members lobbying. Oliver said they are required by law to recuse themselves from considering issues that they have personal financial interest in.

He said he believed that the councils were, overall, “very transparent.”

Sablan scoffed at that.

“Really, really?” he said to Oliver. “I’m talking about Wespac in particular. It is 4,000 miles away from my district and it is very difficult to find out what they are doing because they don’t put up transcripts of their meetings on their webpage as required by law.”

View of the Marianas Trench monument

Waters off Maug, a volcano in the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. Sablan said no management plan has been written for the area.

Image couresy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas

Oliver said there are legal requirements that call for transparency.

“So require Wespac to follow the law,” Sablan said.

Oliver said he would look into it.

Sablan said he had “been trying eight years, nine years, 10” to get NOAA to do that, and that his questions had never been fully answered or addressed.

Sablan also asked Oliver to investigate why no management plan had ever been put in place for the Marianas Trench marine national monument, which was established by presidential proclamation by President George W. Bush in 2009.

Sablan said the plan was supposed to be completed by 2011. Residents of the Northern Marianas were assured at the time the marine monument was created that it would attract tourism, but that has not been the case, he said.

Marine monuments are overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The top Trump administration official in the department is Ryan Zinke, secretary of the interior.

Oliver said he believed the Marianas Trench is carrying a “monument closure designation.” The administration has been reviewing executive orders establishing national monuments, including including the Marianas Trench.

Sablan said he believed that Oliver was mistaken, and suggested it was because he is new to the job.

“No, it is not,” he told Oliver. “How long have you been on this job, Mr. Oliver?”

Oliver said he had occupied his job for almost three months.

“I appreciate that you have been on the job such a short time, but could I please get answers to those questions,” Sablan responded.

Oliver apologized and promised to investigate.

“I’ll get to it,” he said. “I’m sorry that I don’t have answers on the top of my head.”

The hearing last week was not the only recent time Sablan has aired criticism of Wespac. At a hearing in March before the same subcommittee, he said that Wespac was placing priority on fishing industry interests instead of environmental concerns.

“We should not allow fishery management councils, including the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, to have veto power over fishing rules in monuments and sanctuaries designed to preserve all marine species and habitats, not just fish,” he said at the hearing, held on March 15.

“Wespac in particular has fought against every marine preservation effort in memory including regulation to stop the gruesome practice of shark-finning and regulations designed to protect threatened and endangered species, green turtles, marine mammals and seabirds,” he said.

Reauthorizing The Law

Last week’s hearing revolved around Republican efforts to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, H.R. 200, and adjust it to make it easier for fishing management councils to gain what sponsors call “flexibility” to tailor fishery management programs as they think best.  Another provision would require councils to provide a webcast or audio broadcast of their meetings.

A Democratic version of a bill to reform Magnuson-Stevens, meanwhile, authored by the subcommittee’s ranking member, Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, would require fishery councils to record non-procedural votes, improve access to information from council hearings, and improve transparency about council members, including information about conflicts of interest.

Sablan said he supported that provision in particular, as drafted in the Democratic statement.

Sablan is a non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress because the Northern Marianas is a U.S. territory. He can vote in committee meetings and introduce legislation, but cannot vote on the House floor.

As a territory, the Northern Marianas is not represented by a senator, and U.S. citizens there cannot vote for president.

The relative powerlessness of U.S. territories, particularly Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, came to the forefront of public attention in recent weeks because of the hurricane devastation they sustained, and the perception of slow federal response to the crises.

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