CNMI, American Samoa criticise Pacific Remote Islands expansion plan

Pacific Remote Islands Sanctuary
Pacific Remote Islands Sanctuary

U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan to expand the Pacific Remote Islands’ marine sanctuary has been receiving negative responses from territorial leaders, who criticised the lack of consultation prior to the White House’s announcement.

“It really is about communications, respect for each other, respect for what we represent, and respect for federal and regulatory agencies,” CNMI Governor Arnold Palacios said Monday, keynoting the 194th meeting of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WPRFMC) on Saipan.

“Government policies have profound impacts on small communities. I am not opposed to conservation and management measures—that is the purpose of the council. But we need to start talking, respecting and considering the consequences of our decisions,” he added.

The proposed new national marine sanctuary will cover 777,000 square miles around the Pacific Remote Islands. 

Archie Soliai, American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources chair, said the federal actions “are done without consultation of our Pacific communities and are very disrespectful. Where is the environmental justice and equity that this administration has prioritised?” 

He quoted American Samoa Congresswoman Amata Radewagen who has said this announcement equates to “conservation by confiscation without consultation.”

Council member Will Sword of American Samoa said further closures of U.S. waters in the Pacific would be “the death knell” of the tuna industry that supports almost a third of the territory’s workforce.

The council asked NOAA, and all other involved agencies, to consult with the U.S. Pacific territories beyond the public comment opportunity on the proposed sanctuary. 

To better understand the council’s role and responsibilities in the process, the council will request the National Ocean Service give a presentation on the proposed sanctuary at its next meeting.

Palacios also expressed apprehension over increasing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and increased tensions with China in the region. “I continue to support the efforts of the Council to address these concerns, which are efforts to protect the interests of the three U.S. Pacific territories,” he said.

The council approved a three-year Marine Conservation Plan for the CNMI, which outlines priorities for fishery infrastructure, capacity, research and development projects aimed at conserving the region’s unique marine ecosystems. 

The council will ask Palacios to provide the plan to NOAA for final approval.

The council plans to engage with local leaders and stakeholders from the northern islands of the CNMI on community-based fishing management plans to ensure adequate representation from those communities. 

The council also asked NOAA to tailor its equity and environmental justice community engagement plans to each island in the CNMI. On Monday, the Council held its first in-person Fishers Forum in the Mariana Islands since 2018, focusing on the history of bottom-fishing, different fishing gears and methods, and the science and management of bottom-fishing in the region.

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