NOAA heard strong support for expanded protections, but others implored the agency to preserve economic opportunities for U.S. territories.

Several dozen community members gave an array of impassioned feedback Wednesday evening on President Joe Biden’s proposal to create a new Pacific marine sanctuary that would be one of the largest protected areas on the planet. 

Most of those attending the first in a series of scoping meetings led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this month across the Pacific spoke strongly in favor of creating a new 770,000-square-mile Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Sanctuary

They said the move would help protect imperiled fish, sharks, sea turtles and marine mammals in the Pacific against a triple threat of climate change, pollution and invasive species. It’s part of a broader effort on both the federal and international levels to protect some 30% of the planet’s land and waters by 2030.

The distant Palmyra Atoll would be included in a new proposed marine sanctuary, plus the protected area around it would be expanded to 200 nautical miles from 50 nautical miles. (Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2022)

The distant atolls, reefs and shoals at the center of those remote ocean swathes “show what our planet can look like with proper stewardship and restoration,” said Suzanne Case, former chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources under Gov. David Ige. “All of the Pacific Remote Islands including Palmyra Atoll merit the full protection by all means.”

The protected areas are hundreds of miles to the south and west of Hawaii — “far from any of the local communities with traditional fishing in the Pacific,” Case said.

The sanctuary as proposed would expand upon the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. If designated, it would be larger than the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The Department of Hawaiian Homelands Chair William Aila.
William Aila: “Not everyone equates natural resources to dollars.” (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

However, others at the meeting cautioned against expanding the boundaries of the protected area, which they said would harm the economic prospects of U.S. territories in the Pacific that are often neglected.

Esther Kiaaina, a former Department of Interior undersecretary for insular affairs under President Obama, told the panel of NOAA and White House officials that some federal agencies “have shown more concern about the protection of natural resources and ocean resources than the actual welfare and quality of life for the Indigenous peoples who live in these areas.” 

She said that the Interior Department had put a lot of thought into limiting the boundaries around Howland and Baker islands, plus Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef, to 50 nautical miles when creating the monument. The sanctuary proposes extending those boundaries out to the full 200 nautical miles controlled by the U.S.

Animation of the changing Pacific Marine Monument boundaries
A map shows the changes in the Pacific marine national monuments borders over time. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

Kiaaina, who’s now a Honolulu City Council member representing Windward Oahu, further urged NOAA to foster more economic opportunities for the Pacific U.S. territories, including Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa, if the federal agency moves ahead with the new sanctuary. 

That could include creating new aquaculture programs for better food security, she said. Kiaaina testified in her individual capacity, not as a council member.

Brenda Mallory, who advises Biden as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, also attended Wednesday’s scoping meeting.

“My main job here today is listening and learning from all of you,” she said. “This region is crucial to the health and sustainability of our planet’s marine ecosystem, but it’s facing significant and urgent challenges” 

Biden environmental adviser Brenda Mallory: “My main job here today is listening and learning from all of you.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, also attended but did not testify. 

Wespac hasn’t yet reviewed the latest sanctuary proposal, but the council has consistently and staunchly opposed efforts to expand Pacific monuments and sanctuaries in the past. 

“We support the process, but we want to make sure they include commercial fishing in their goals and objectives,” Simonds said after Wednesday’s meeting. 

“I had hoped that Hawaii longline industry members would have come to this and participated in person, but I’m sure … they’re going to have their comments,” she added.

Mark Fitchett, a Wespac pelagic fisheries ecosystem scientist, said the U.S. purse seine fleet based in American Samoa rarely fishes in the expanded waters proposed for the sanctuary.

Nonetheless, those waters could become important fishing areas for the American Samoa fleet in future years as the international community negotiates pacts on where different fleets can fish within the Pacific, Fitchett said. Currently, there are 11 active purse seiner vessels out of American Samoa, he said.

William Aila, a member of the pro-sanctuary Pacific Remote Islands Coalition and former head of DLNR, asked NOAA to listen closely in their subsequent scoping meetings to the residents of the U.S. territories – not just to the government leaders there who’ve voiced concerns against the sanctuary. 

“Not everyone equates natural resources to dollars,” Aila said. “Not everyone is concerned only about economic opportunities. There are still those elders in those areas that believe in the values that are very similar to our values here in Hawaii.”

“That’s not a surprise because we’re all connected by our ancestors who sailed through those waters, (for) many, many thousands of years,” he added.

The next scoping meeting is scheduled to take place on Wednesday in Hilo. NOAA will then head to Guam and the CNMI next week to gather local feedback there. Those who don’t get a chance to attend can also comment online by visiting and typing in the docket number: NOAA-NOS-2023-0052.

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