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The unexpected death this summer of Edwin Ebisui has left the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council with an empty seat and a decision to make on who should take over as its permanent chair.
The leadership void comes at a crucial time for the council, which has been pushing the Trump administration to open up protected waters to commercial fishing.
“You can be sure there is all kinds of lobbying going on right now,” said Rick Gaffney, a former council member and head of the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association.
The council, a quasi-judicial body known as Wespac, has 13 voting members and manages 1.5 million square miles of ocean. It is tasked with ensuring fish stocks remain sustainable while protecting endangered species and natural resources.
Ebisui, 67, was a Honolulu lawyer who fished commercially for bottomfish such as onaga and opakapaka. He was also a strong advocate for Hawaii’s $100 million tuna industry during his tenure on the council.
Last year, Ebisui and Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds urged President Donald Trump to remove the marine national monument fishing provisions to return management powers to the council. An executive decision is still pending.
Ebisui and Simonds opposed President Barack Obama’s decision to expand the Pacific Remote Islands and Papahanaumokuakea marine national monuments, sending letters to top elected officials explaining how it would hurt the fishing industry.
They argued that the fourfold expansion of Papahanaumokuakea, which Obama decreed in 2016, would restrict access to an area where Hawaii longliners catch on average 8 percent of their annual limit for bigeye tuna.
But environmentalists and others maintained that the benefits of protecting these waters far outweigh the drawbacks. They point out that fishermen are free to make up their lost catch elsewhere in the Pacific, as they have done.
As of Monday, the longliners had caught 84 percent of their 2018 limit of 3,554 tons of bigeye tuna, one of two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Council members mourned the loss of Ebisui at his funeral Sunday.
“We lost a really treasured member of our council,” Wespac member Dean Sensui said Monday. “He was a real fisherman’s fisherman. He not only knew about it, he lived it.”
Ebisui died July 23 from complications related to diabetes, Sensui said.
He described Ebisui as a “quiet, soft-spoken kind of guy who always had thoughtful things to say before, during and after council meetings.”
Gaffney said Ebisui was a “superb chair” who will be hard to replace. But he said it’s time to broaden the council’s representation so it is less centered around the Hawaii longline industry.
In the past, Wespac has had chairs who were either directly connected to the longliners or supported their interests. Council members like Ebisui or former chair Sean Martin of the Hawaii Longline Association would be “recycled,” Gaffney said, to keep them in control.
“The good is that they were highly experienced at chairing the council and have a long historical background of council actions,” Gaffney said. “But the bad side of that is we’re not getting any new blood.”
He said he wasn’t aware of a recreational or sport fisherman ever having been chair and would like to see someone else, possibly from the environmental community, if for no other reason than fairness.
John Gourley, a Saipan-based environmental consultant, is serving as acting chair.
The council will choose its officers for 2019, including a permanent chair and vice chairs, at its next meeting Oct. 23-24 in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Oct. 25-26 in Guam, Wespac spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding said Monday.
Meanwhile, the governors of Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and CNMI were asked to submit names to the National Marine Fisheries Service for the U.S. Commerce Department, which Wespac falls under, to fill the empty council seat.
The three-year term for the at-large post expires Aug. 10, 2020. A replacement will be appointed before the council’s October meeting, Spalding said.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige missed the deadline to submit names last time there was an open seat in 2017. He had tried to nominate Tim Johns, Trisha Kehaulani Watson, ʻAulani Wilhelm, William Aila, Sol Kahoʻohalahala and Sean Martin — a mix of environmental, commercial fishing and business leaders.
Hawaii lost one of two at-large seats it had historically held as a result of the tardy submission. Ebisui’s spot was saved thanks to CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres nominating him.
A spokeswoman for Ige said Monday that the governor has already submitted names this time, but his office did not release them publicly.
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