Longtime leader Kitty Simonds has been recruiting a replacement, although she said she hasn’t yet decided when she’s going to retire.

Kitty Simonds, one of the most influential people in the Pacific in U.S. fishing policy, says she’s actively seeking someone to replace her as executive director of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, a post she’s held for 40 years.

“I haven’t decided exactly when,” Simonds said of her impending departure. “I have been searching for suitable candidates.”

Simonds said she’s not ready to reveal the identities of any of her possible successors or the people that she and others at Wespac have been talking to, but the process has been playing out for many months.

Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, is once again considering retirement. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

One name that has been floated among those keeping an eye on Wespac’s future is Esther Kiaaina, currently a member of the Honolulu City Council.

Kiaaina said that while she’s heard the same rumors, she has not been approached by Simonds or any others from Wespac about taking on the position nor is it something that she is interested in pursuing should Simonds ultimately decide to retire.

“It is one of the most important jobs in the Pacific related to both fisheries and economic development,” Kiaaina said. “Whoever takes her spot, I think, has to have the gravitas to be able to navigate the federal government as well as the international stakeholders in addition to everything else that’s going on in the region. Quite frankly that’s very difficult.”

Perhaps the most talked about replacement is Eric Kingma, former Wespac staff member who now heads the Hawaii Longline Association. Kingma declined to comment for this story.

Simonds herself cuts a complicated figure in the world of American fisheries and the politics around it.

She’s been a fierce advocate for the Hawaii longline industry, and has successfully negotiated with U.S. territories to increase the local fleet’s tuna catch quotas to help fuel the islands’ appetite for poke.

She’s also pushed back against a number of environmental regulations, such as those meant to protect threatened species, including green sea turtles, in order to ensure fishermen can keep their lines in the water longer.

Most notably, she’s been an active combatant in the fight against national marine monuments and sanctuaries, going toe-to-toe with presidents from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
Simonds and Wespac are currently opposing President Joe Biden’s proposal to expand protections around the Pacific Remote Islands.

This week during a meeting of regional fishery councils in Washington, D.C., at least one participant approached Simonds and told her that he appreciated her advocacy on behalf of fishermen, saying he’s glad someone was “spitting nails” on their behalf.

Simonds, however, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years for the way she does business.

In 2021, the U.S. Commerce Department’s inspector general released a report finding that Wespac had misspent nearly $1 million in its sustainable fisheries fund after a Civil Beat investigation questioned whether the agency was using federal dollars to further commercial fishing interests.

Since then, a number of Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee, including Hawaii U.S. Rep. Ed Case, have demanded answers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about how it plans to hold Wespac accountable for its many “transgressions.”

In particular they wanted to know whether it’s even possible to force Wespac to pay back the misspent funds and if NOAA even has the authority to terminate those it deems responsible for misusing the money.

Case said whether Simonds retires from Wespac or not is a personal choice, but he made clear that he has lost confidence in her ability to do the job effectively.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, right, has long had concerns about Wespac and the way Kitty Simonds ran it. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

There are eight regional fishery councils in the country and only one — Wespac — has been found to be breaking the rules and “operating in an atmosphere of antagonism and division,” he said.

“Clearly there’s a problem there and has been for a long time,” Case said of Wespac under Simonds’ leadership. “Any entity or organization has to ask itself, as I’m sure Wespac is doing, whether this is a good time to move on.”

Case said that over time, Simonds has become synonymous with Wespac as a whole even though it’s made up of individual council members who are supposed to be directing her what to do and not the other way around.

If she does leave the agency, he said, those members will have to embark on their own mission to determine what needs to be done to rebuild trust and credibility in the organization.

“The concerns with Wespac pushing the line have been years and even decades in the making,” Case said. “For the chair of Wespac and its members it should be soul searching time.”

Meanwhile, Simonds has yet to make any official announcements about her future.

She acknowledged that she’s been in this position several times over the past 10 or so years, and that it’s entirely possible that her whims could change.

“As I say, I’m never sure,” she said. “There are always issues that come up that I need to be involved in.”

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