Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan is to be commended for his advocacy for the people of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and as well as the interests of the marine environment.

As Civil Beat reported last week, the lawmaker is demanding an investigation of the Hawaii-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

However, I must differ with the congressman on his depiction of the council as being engaged in improper lobbying specifically in regards to the opposition to Marine Monuments that has aired during council meetings.

View of the Marianas Trench monument
The waters off Maug, a volcano in the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. The Honolulu-based Wespac has been criticized over allegations of anti-environmental lobbying and secretiveness regarding marine monuments. Courtesy: NOAA

The council is a body of 16 people with staff that has jurisdiction over 1.5 million nautical  miles roughly half the total of the entire U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.

At the time the Magnuson Act was passed in 1976, Pacific Islanders had little our no say as to how their ocean waters were to be used. At that time the sushi and raw tuna market was limited primarily to Japan and people who liked Japanese food. Tuna which was the main economic asset of U.S. Pacific Islanders was not even included.

How The Council Came To Be

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the people of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands were negotiating with the U.S. federal government over how the CNMI would be constituted, the people of the CNMI appealed to policymakers in Washington, D.C. They were often considered to be the inhabitants of a small isolated place in the Pacific with few people to speak for them.

Hawaii state Sen. Wadsworth Yee, the first council chairman, was a strong believer in the rights of indigenous peoples of the Western Pacific to be heard in Washington. He was criticized for holding council meetings in Saipan. However he knew the people there could not afford to come to Honolulu. The only way to reach them was to actually go there.

The issue of the marine monuments is a complex one.

Yee asked the council staff to look into the concerns of the CNMI people and he took those concerns to the highest levels he could in the U.S. Department of Commerce and in Washington. His efforts and those of the council helped play a role in the development of the fishery management agency in CNMI.

Nowadays that kind of advocacy might be considered improper lobbying. At the time it was thought of standing up for people who had no one else in their corner.

The issue of the Marine Monuments is a complex one. Since the council was formed the popular culture regarding fisheries has changed. At a time when record numbers U.S. consumers are eating poke bowls and sushi, environmental groups are outspoken that U.S. tuna fisheries be continually be restricted and takes reduced.

The WPRFMC’s Scientific and Statistical Committee has worked for years to develop new mathematical models for tuna stock management. The idea of the monuments is to just end fishing in a large area all together.

It is deceptively simple solution, since this would mean an increase in fishing imports from other areas – now largely unregulated – from Pacific Island states that have neither the funds nor the government resources to fully protect their marine areas.

Seeking Political High Ground

U.S. environmental groups, with the best of intentions, seek the political high ground each year in their quest for improved ocean policy. This often involves trying to find a way to resolve the discrepancy between improved ocean management and the enormous appetite of U.S. consumers for fresh tuna.

Finding a balance between these two conflicting goals causes enormous frustration. The councils become the targets of many people who wish things could be more easily resolved.

In regards to the transparency issue, the Magnuson Act does not require councils to post transcripts online. The keeping of minutes was the standard practice in government agencies when the councils were created 40 years ago and continues to be the requirement. At the present time some councils opt to post audio files and other information where available. Practices evolve over time.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council is not perfect, but it is safe to say that without them the marine environment and the safeguarding of fish stocks in the U.S. Western Pacific and elsewhere would be a great deal worse.

The question is not how to improve council protocols. It’s whether we who live in the Pacific region can find a means to work together for a better future.

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