The regional council had wanted to allow Native Hawaiian subsistence fishermen to sell some of their catch.

Federal officials have blocked an effort to allow the sale of fish caught within the boundaries of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument under certain circumstances.

A key part of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council’s recommended fishing rules for the monument expansion area just doesn’t work, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Assistant Administrator Nicole LeBoeuf.

Wespac’s proposal conflicts with the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, LeBoeuf told Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds in a letter Wednesday. It also runs counter to the goals and objectives of designating a portion of Papahanaumokuakea as a national marine sanctuary.

While NOAA can authorize subsistence fishing in the monument expansion area under a permit for Native Hawaiian practices, LeBoeuf said “such activities must be sustainable and must not serve as a toehold for prohibited commercial fishing.”

NOAA has rejected Wespac’s proposed rule to allow Native Hawaiian subsistence fishermen to recoup their cost of fishing in the monument by selling their catch. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2017)

LeBoeuf said NOAA will begin to develop its own regulations instead but would consider a revised proposal from Wespac.

Efforts to designate waters surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a national marine sanctuary began in November 2021. The designation would be an overlay of the monument, which President George W. Bush established in 2006 and President Barack Obama expanded in 2016.

In December at its most recent meeting, Wespac recommended that the National Marine Fisheries Service — an arm of NOAA — authorize noncommercial and Native Hawaiian subsistence fishing from 50 to 200 nautical miles around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Kitty Simonds, Executive Director Wespac. Western Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Kitty Simonds, Wespac’s executive director, supported allowing subsistence Native Hawaiian fishermen to sell their catch from within the monument to recoup their costs. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020)

The council recommended that Native Hawaiians be allowed to recover fishing costs up to $15,000 per trip, an arrangement dubbed “customary exchange.” The announcement came in the form of a press release titled “Fishing Returns to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands After 15 years.”

Under customary exchange as envisioned by Wespac, Native Hawaiians with subsistence fishing permits could catch up to 350,000 pounds of certain fish annually and recoup $15,000 in costs per trip.

To recoup costs associated with fuel, bait and ice, for example, permit holders could sell, barter or trade their catch.

Trading and bartering were fine but the word “sell” was a dealbreaker for NOAA.

Nicole LeBoeuf is NOAA’s assistant administrator for ocean services and coastal zone management. (NOAA)

In her letter to Simonds, LeBoeuf said allowing fishermen to sell their catch doesn’t align with the goals and objectives of the proposed sanctuary. Among those is to manage the sanctuary as a sacred site consistent with Native Hawaiian traditional knowledge, management concepts and principles spelled out in Mai Ka Po Mai, a guidance document stemming from more than a decade of discussions with the Native Hawaiian community.

LeBoeuf pointed out that the State of Hawaii representative on Wespac — by default the Department of Land and Natural Resources chair, which at the time was Suzanne Case — voted against the council’s December recommendation because including the word “sale” under a Native Hawaiian subsistence fishing permit is “inconsistent with the state’s constitutional protection of Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights.”

Although the waters in the proposed national marine sanctuary are not state-controlled, the state is a co-manager.

One of the objectives is to maintain existing co-management structures and foster “seamless integrated stewardship.”

She also noted comments Wespac received from the Papahanaumokuakea Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, supported by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, opposing any form of customary exchange – meaning the bartering, trading or selling of fish caught from the area.

LeBoeuf said if Wespac wants to reconsider the matter at its March meeting, it’s welcome to do so. NOAA will consider any revisions until April 14.

“We will be discussing NOAA’s letter and developing options for the Council to consider at the March 27-28 and 30-31, 2023 meeting,” Wespac spokeswoman Amy Vandehey said by email Friday.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case is among those who oppose Wespac’s proposed fishing rules.

In a Jan. 3 letter to NOAA, Case described the customary exchange idea as a “dangerous, industry-led proposal to expand Monument extraction thinly veiled as a purported cultural practice.”

Read NOAA’s letter below.

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