WASHINGTON — Archie Soliai was supposed to be leading a meeting at the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore this week, but instead he appeared on a computer screen with a pixelated view of Pago Pago in American Samoa in the background. 

Soliai is the chairman of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a quasi-governmental federal agency that oversees fish stocks in U.S. waters from Hawaii to the Pacific Island territories of American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.

He works for the StarKist Samoa tuna cannery, and over the course of two days hosted a meeting of the nation’s premier fisheries managers via a WebEx video conference to discuss how commercial fishermen could rebound from the coronavirus outbreak that so far has killed more than 101,000 people in the U.S. and 358,000 worldwide.

COVID-19 has decimated the U.S. fishing industry. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The meeting was supposed to take place in Hawaii, where the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council is headquartered. Instead, everyone, including Soliai, top officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other members of the eight U.S. fishery councils, tuned in remotely. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made our responsibility more poignant, and highlights the often overlooked fact that managing our nation’s fisheries is about ensuring that Americans have food,” Soliai said as he opened up the forum.

“Management is very important to our fish stocks, protected species, guaranteeing our fishermen earn decent livings and recreational fishing. Those are very important for all the regions, but we must not forget that the bottom line is that our nation provides nutritious seafood to our people.” 

A primary concern was how COVID-19 has decimated the fishing industry, including in Hawaii where demand for fresh seafood has dwindled to the point where a significant amount of the commercial fishing fleet is tied up at port.

The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed in March provided $300 million to the nation’s fishing industry, but the money has yet to be spent.

Wespac Chairman Archie Soliai participates in a video conference to discuss the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Screenshot/2020

NOAA officials in charge of doling out the money told the fishery councils during the meeting that while they’ve come up with an algorithm for splitting the funds — $4.3 million is dedicated to Hawaii — spending plans still need to be developed and approved by states and territories before any money gets disbursed.

Oversight mechanisms also need to be put in place to ensure fishermen and seafood companies don’t “double-dip” in the various pots of federal relief aid, pulling in more money than they would absent a viral outbreak.

Both NOAA and fisheries officials said there’s no question the $300 million is not enough to cover the economic losses incurred by a multibillion dollar domestic seafood industry.

Some expressed concern that federal aid would not be available to foreign fishermen who crew U.S. fishing vessels, particularly in the Pacific.

“We have businesses that have non-U.S. citizen employees and we also have fishermen who are not U.S. citizens so this is going to be kind of a big issue for us in the CNMI,” said John Gourley, who represents the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and is vice chairman of Wespac.

Chris Oliver, the Trump administration’s assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, pointed to the CARES Act and a May 7 presidential executive order seeking to slash regulations and reduce environmental burdens on commercial fishermen and aquaculture as an opportunity to regain some of the economic drive that’s been lost to the coronavirus.

He also noted that the pandemic has cut down on scientific research and fishery surveys.

“I think our immediate priorities have largely been determined for us,” Oliver said. “We’re starting to think more about how we come out of this in terms of regaining the economics of our fisheries and supporting a new normal where seafood plays an even bigger role in our economy.”

The pandemic has heightened the fishery councils’ desire for the seafood industry to be placed on a similar plane as agriculture, especially as the outbreak exposes serious vulnerabilities in the global supply chain.

President Donald Trump’s executive order was largely celebrated among the council members, and in particular Wespac, which immediately urged the administration to lift fishing restrictions in national marine monuments, such as Papahanaumokuakea, which was expanded in 2016 by President Barack Obama.

Wespac will not be alone in its push to expand U.S. fishing grounds into protected areas.

Chris Oliver, acting administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said he’s hopeful Trump’s executive order will be a boon for the domestic seafood industry. Screenshot/2020

Eric Reid, vice chairman of the New England Regional Fishery Management Council, said he supports Wespac’s position and shares its concerns when it comes to fishing in the Atlantic Ocean.

He said any decisions about fishing in monuments should be left up to the councils, which were created by Congress in 1976 to manage marine resources by setting seasons and catch limits on everything from crab and lobster to tuna and opah.

“The monuments represent the cost of lost opportunity to the U.S. fleet and the infrastructure and markets that support them,” Reid said.

His words brought a resounding, “Yay, team!” from Wespac’s executive director Kitty Simonds, who has been pushing for years to allow Hawaii’s commercial longline fleet to fish in Pacific marine sanctuaries.

While Oliver didn’t specifically respond to Reid or Simonds’ comments, he did encourage the fishery councils to think big when it comes to making suggestions to the Trump administration as requested by the executive order.

“Our top priority right now is to try and make sure the wheels don’t fall off, and if one or two do fall off, we need to figure out how to put them back on,” Oliver said. “Beyond that I think we have a great opportunity to not just recover from this, but greatly expand the bigger value of our commercial and recreational fisheries.”

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