WASHINGTON — The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council is once again pressing the Trump administration to lift fishing restrictions in national marine monuments, including Papahanaumokuakea, which was expanded in 2016 by President Barack Obama.

The council’s latest push comes on the heels of an executive order President Donald Trump signed on May 7 that’s meant to slash federal regulations and ease environmental burdens on American aquaculture and commercial fishing industries in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, two of Trump’s top advisors, Joe Grogan and Peter Navarro, said the president’s new order would “help reduce pain in the grocery checkout line — and also strengthen U.S. food production against foreign competition.”

Clouds of reef fish and corals, French frigate shoals, NWHI
Reef fish and corals at the French frigate shoals in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Courtesy: James Watt

Skeptics, including U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, have said the White House’s order is just a thinly veiled attempt to roll back environmental protections during a crisis.

At a committee hearing this week, Huffman questioned the timing of Trump’s announcement, noting that it came the same day U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the release of $300 million of congressionally approved COVID-19 relief aid that fishermen have been waiting on for months.

“This injects partisanship and tired false choices into an already difficult situation,” Huffman said. “American fishers are being hurt by massive disruption in the marketplace, not a lack of fish and certainly not environmental rules.”

A provision in Trump’s order calls on the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils to submit “a prioritized list of recommended actions to reduce burdens on domestic fishing and to increase production within sustainable fisheries.”

The management councils, which were created by Congress in 1976, govern the fishing seasons and quotas of some of the U.S.’ most lucrative fisheries, from crabs, scallops and lobster to salmon, shrimp and tuna. The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council is responsible for monitoring fish stocks from Hawaii and American Samoa to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Trump’s order gave each council 180 days to submit recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce. In less than 24 hours Wespac made its first pitch to the president to open up commercial fishing in the Pacific marine monuments, which provide critical habitat to a number of sensitive species, including coral, Hawaiian monk seals and at least two species of endangered sea turtles.

“We should take advantage of this opportunity because I don’t think it’s ever going to come again,” Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds said in an interview with Civil Beat. “This is where we’re coming from and this is what we support. We’re the sustainable fisheries people. We have a lot of knowledge and we believe that our fishing doesn’t harm the critters up there.”

Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds testifies before the House Natural Resources Committee in 2019. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

In a May 8 letter, Simonds and Wespac Chairman Archie Taotasi Soliai applauded Trump’s May 7 executive order and urged him to remove barriers to commercial fishing in the marine monuments.

They said the restrictions were “unnecessary as they have not proven conservation benefit” and particularly harmful to Pacific tuna fishermen and a StarKist tuna cannery in American Samoa. Soliai is the government and community relations manager for StarKist in American Samoa.

The letter pointed out that Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet has made Honolulu one of the top ports in the U.S. based on its $110 million dockside value of landed fish and that the COVID-19 pandemic has created “exceptionally high retail demand” for shelf-stable canned and pouched tuna from the StarKist cannery in American Samoa.

Simonds and Soliai said American fishermen struggle to compete on the high seas because they need to spend more on ice, fuel and other provisions when they are forced to leave U.S. waters.

“We have a lot of knowledge and we believe that our fishing doesn’t harm the critters up there.” — Kitty Simonds, Wespac executive director

They said U.S. fishermen also face “an unfair playing field” because, unlike foreign fleets, they must abide by strict rules when it comes to interactions with protected species, gear requirements and the need to have fisheries observers onboard to monitor compliance.

There’s also increased competition with China, which they said has bolstered its fishing fleet fourfold in recent decades.

“Quick action is urgently needed,” they said, “to support our Hawai‘i and American Samoa longline fisheries, the US tropical tuna purse-seine fishery and the tuna cannery in American Samoa.”

Hawaii Congressman Ready To Fight

Wespac’s ask of the Trump administration comes as demand for fresh fish, at least in Hawaii, has plummeted to the point where the cost outweighs the revenues for most fishermen itching to take to the sea.

The council is closely aligned with Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry, especially the longline fleet which constitutes nearly 90% of all commercial fishing effort in the islands.

Endangered Hawaiian monk seals are just one of many sensitive species that use the marine monuments as critical habitat. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Over the years, Wespac has worked to weaken protections for green sea turtles and allow Hawaii’s fishermen to exceed international catch quotas for bigeye tuna. It’s vigorously opposed the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea, which is the largest marine sanctuary on the planet.

After Trump took office in 2017, Wespac tried to convince then-U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to shrink Papahanaumokuakea as part of a review that targeted other national monuments. Wespac even developed a campaign that included a play on a favorite Trump slogan — “Make America Great Again. Return U.S. Fishermen to U.S. Waters.”

“This fight was fought tooth and nail when these marine monuments were created and expanded.” — U.S. Rep. Ed Case

At this point it’s unclear just how much the expansion of Pacific marine monuments has impeded U.S. fishermen, particularly in Hawaii.

A recent study led by a University of Hawaii economics professor that was published in the online journal Nature Communications found that Hawaii’s longline fleet actually caught more fish and earned more revenue after Obama expanded Papahanaumokuakea in 2016 and the Pacific Remote Islands in 2014.

A similar analysis released around the same time found that some Hawaii longliners who used to fish in the waters around Papahanaumokuakea saw slight decreases in revenue after the expansion. Still, a majority saw increased revenues. 

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case sees Wespac’s letter to Trump as a brazen attempt to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to serve the financial interests of commercial fishermen. All he has to do is look at the timing of when Trump asked for recommendations and when Wespac hit send on its request.

“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Case said in an interview with Civil Beat. “They clearly anticipated using COVID-19 as an excuse to realize their long pursued goal of opening up the national marine monuments.”

Congressman Ed Case FAA Whistleblower Helicopters Press Conference
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case says he will oppose any plan by Wespac to ease fishing restrictions in Pacific marine monuments. Kuʻu Kauanoe/ Civil Beat/2020

Case, who is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, is a critic of Wespac. Last year, he and others on the committee asked the inspector general for the U.S. Commerce Department to audit the council’s spending practices after a Civil Beat investigation found potential conflicts of interest, political favoritism and questionable expenses involving a multimillion dollar sustainable fisheries fund that was used to bolster commercial fishing interests.

Case said he plans to oppose any attempts by Wespac to open up Papahanaumokuakea or any other Pacific marine monument to commercial fishing.

“We made a decision on our national marine monuments that these were areas of our ocean that we needed to preserve and protect for all time,” he said. “This fight was fought tooth and nail when these marine monuments were created and expanded, and I think we’ve made the right decision by carving out the most ecologically incredible and valuable portions of our oceans and saying those are off limits. We’ve got to let nature run those areas.”

‘No Deep-Pocketed Seafood Lobby’

While Trump’s executive order has its doubters, it was widely celebrated by the U.S. commercial fishing industry.

Bob Vanasse, who’s the executive director of Saving Seafood, a Washington D.C.-based industry group, said it’s unfair to paint the Trump executive order as simply another attempt at environmental deregulation meant to serve business interests.

He said domestic seafood harvesters and producers have nowhere near the political influence of the fossil fuels industry, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, pumped $33.8 million into oil & gas lobbying efforts in the first quarter of 2020 alone.

“There’s no deep-pocketed seafood lobby that’s arm-twisting Republicans in the White House,” Vanasse said. “It’s just not there. When you pull the numbers you can’t even compare the lobbying money spent by the auto industry or the oil industry to the seafood industry.”

An analysis of lobbying disclosures data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that fisheries and wildlife organizations, which in previous years included groups such as the Hawaii Longline Association, spent less than $600,000 in the first quarter of 2020.

Even the food and beverage industry, which is made up of large seafood companies, such as StarKist and Trident Seafoods, spent just over $7 million.

“I know there are people in Hawaii who love to criticize Wespac for anything they do, but in this case it’s completely inappropriate.” — Bob Vanasse, Saving Seafood

Vanasse, whose company is paid to amplify Wespac’s voice by issuing its press releases to a wider audience, defended the council’s request to the Trump administration to lift fishing restrictions in marine monuments.

He said the creation of the Pacific monuments, and Papahanaumokuakea in particular, was the result of executive overreach by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, presidents who, Vanasse pointed out, were from opposing political parties and used the same authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create and expand the sanctuary.

“My criticism of the marine national monuments is bipartisan,” Vanasse said.

A gray reef shark swims among a colorful school of yellow and blueback fusiliers in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Courtesy: NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program

The concerns of commercial fishing interests were drowned out when Obama, with the stroke of his pen, expanded Papahanaumokuakea in 2016 and created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the first ever marine monument designation in the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, the chairmen of all eight regional fishery management councils, including Wespac, urged Obama to leave the fishing decisions up to them, but to no avail. The fact that Wespac is again making the same plea to the Trump administration, Vanasse said, is no surprise given the history.

“Wespac is not out on a limb on this,” Vanasse said. “I know there are people in Hawaii who love to criticize Wespac for anything they do, but in this case it’s completely inappropriate. They are not an outlier among the other councils on this topic.”

Kitty Simonds told Civil Beat that even though Wespac moved quickly to send a letter to Trump urging him to lift fishing restrictions in the Pacific marine monuments, Wespac intends to send a more detailed proposal before the deadline.

“We’re not talking just about today,” she said. “We’re talking about the future.”

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