Prominent Native Hawaiian practitioners and U.S. Rep. Ed Case are pushing back against new proposals from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, saying such rules could open the waters protected in Pahahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument to commercial fishing.

Wespac’s proposal explicitly prohibits commercial fishing in those waters around the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. However, Case and members of the monument’s Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group say that another part of the council’s proposal, which it describes as “customary exchange,” would allow such fishing to occur.

“This is just the latest effort … by a council plagued by ethical concerns in its continued attempts to resubject Papahanaumokuakea to commercial fishing,” Case wrote in a Jan. 3 letter to NOAA Administrator Richard Spinrad.

Wespac’s customary exchange proposal “runs directly counter to currently-agreed upon cultural practices” in monument waters, he said.

The sun sets on the open ocean in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a swath of the Pacific that is protected by restrictions on fishing and other uses. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018

Customary exchange as laid out by Wespac would allow Native Hawaiians with the proper subsistence fishing permits to catch up to 350,000 pounds of certain fish a year and recoup up to $15,000 in costs per trip. Generally, those permittees could “sell, barter or trade” to recoup their costs associated with fishing in waters between 50 and 200 miles around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Such a traditional practice fits well in other Pacific regions, but at Papahanaumokuakea it would be “harmful and incompatible” because those waters traditionally were kapu, or off-limits, to most fishing, the Hawaiian CWG told Wespac in written testimony.

“Due to the deep spiritual significance and marginal nature of this remote region, people visiting exercised a higher degree of restraint to not leave a lasting impact on the land and sea,” its members advised the council.

Prior to European contact, Native Hawaiians would typically sail to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands of Mokumanamana, or Necker, and Nihoa, about 290 miles from Honolulu, to conduct ceremonies and offer hookupu, or offerings, at those sites, said William Aila, a CWG member and its first chair. Most of the fish those voyagers caught went toward food sustenance along the way, and the purpose of the journey was not the fishing itself, he said.

This map shows the boundary of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Courtesy: PMNM

Nonetheless, a majority of Wespac approved the recommendations last month, and announced in a press release that fishing had returned to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands after 15 years. It’s all part of an evaluation over whether to eventually designate the monument as a Marine National Sanctuary. That designation would aim to “strengthen and increase the long-term protections” already in place at the monument.

“It was explicitly understood … that any Sanctuary designation would not operate to weaken current Monument protections and practices,” Case said in a letter to NOAA earlier this month. The council, he said, is using the process “to undermine those very protections and practices through a dangerous, industry-led proposal.”

Kitty Simonds, Wespac’s executive director, did not respond to requests for comment last week. Simonds has previously advocated in her professional capacity for lifting fishing restrictions in protected U.S. waters across the Pacific, often drawing criticism and scrutiny from Hawaii government officials and environmentalists.

Further, environmental groups and U.S. territorial government officials have previously raised concerns over Wespac proposals that would allow more types of fishing, including commercial fishing to qualify as cultural practice.

Wespac’s definition of customary exchange “is in clear conflict with the historic practices of Native Hawaiians in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” Case told NOAA.

It will ultimately fall to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to decide whether to accept Wespac’s latest proposal, officials say. Aila said it could take 6 months to a year to hear back on whether they’re embraced.

“I’m only concerned that in some place in the future, in the upper echelons of NOAA, the fishing side…and the sanctuary side are going to have to make a decision,” Aila said. “And the appropriate decision is not to allow cultural exchange.”

Read Wespac’s proposal, and the concerns by Case and the CWG, here:

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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