WESPAC opposes Pacific monument expansion

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WESPAC) has again made clear its position against further expansion of monuments in the Pacific Ocean and the possible consequences to the Pacific island fishing industries.

The council, also known as WESPAC, last week concluded a three-day meeting covering a wide range of topics on fishing in U.S. waters in the Pacific Ocean, but the most charged comments came while discussing national monuments—namely the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) and the monument expansion area of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

WESPAC in particular pushed back against a proposal to expand PRIMNM, which currently encompasses the U.S. Pacific Remote Island Areas : Baker, Howland and Jarvis Islands ; Johnston, Wake and Palmyra atolls ; and Kingman Reef.

The current monument extends out 200 nautical miles into the ocean from the island areas except Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef and Howland and Baker islands, where it extends only up to 50 nautical miles.

The expansion would extend those boundaries to 200 nautical miles, which is as far as federal waters reach. The monument is just under 500, 000 square miles, and the proposed expansion would add nearly about 265, 000 square miles to it.

WESPAC has voiced its opposition since the expansion was proposed earlier this year, and it continued to do so leading up to and during last week’s council meeting.

Council members and members of WESPAC’s advisory groups said there isn’t enough data to support the supposed boon to conservation that would come with expanding the monument. They also warned that it would further harm Pacific Ocean fishing industries facing ever-shrinking fishing grounds while giving international fisheries, which don’t abide by U.S. regulations, more access.

“It’s not going to affect international fisheries aside from benefiting them because we’re closing our fishing grounds, ” said Council Chair Archie Soliai during the council meeting. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot … because we’re killing the (fishing ) industry.”

The Pacific Remote Islands Coalition, made up of cultural practitioners, scientists, fishers and others, in June to protect “important ecological and cultural value of the area.” If expanded, PRIMNM would surpass Papahanaumokuakea as the world’s largest marine protected area in the world.

The region, south of the Hawaiian Island chain, is viewed as having significant conservation value and would protect and allow the recovery of coral reefs, fisheries and endangered species pressured or threatened by human activities like commercial fishing and deep-sea mining.

The unprotected areas are home to about 100 seamounts and ecological hot spots, and the region is viewed as one of the last refuges for biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean.

But WESPAC said the expansion would be harmful to fishing industries, particularly U.S.-flagged American Samoa purse seine vessels. The fleet, which supplies tuna to American Samoa’s cannery, since 2018.

The previous closure of two canneries in the past decade led to a 25 % drop in the territory’s gross domestic product.

The existing StarKist cannery in Pago Pago employs 5, 000 people of the territory’s workforce of 18, 000, according to WESPAC.

“The thing that bothers me is the inequity for American Samoa, ” said Council member Will Sword. “We’re pushing ourselves out. … Our boats have no place to go.”

Prior to the council meeting, the Scientific and Statistical Committee—one of WESPAC’s advisory groups—was dissatisfied with a presentation supporting the expansion of PRIMNM.

Bob Richmond, director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory, was one of a group of marine and conservation biologists and Native Hawaiian cultural experts who authored an 84-page paper detailing the need to expand the monument.

Richmond, during a September 14 presentation to the Scientific and Statistical Committee, focused mostly on the biological effects of climate change on fish in the region, noting for example that warming and increasingly acidic oceans are negatively affecting the migration patterns and growth of fish and plankton, which are the base of the ocean food chain.

But the committee was unimpressed with what it believed to be a lack of data supporting the expansion and the concern, or lack thereof, for the possible impact on local communities.

“With the absence of data, the absence of the analytic framework, I really feel like you’re trying to sell me a used car that doesn’t run,” Scientific and Statistical Committee member Steve Martell told Richmond.

The paper explained that data is limited for large marine protected areas because they are relatively new, but said that research on them is emerging.

The Scientific and Statistical Committee recommended that WESPAC inform the federal government of the lack of data used to support the benefits of the monument expansion and request an evaluation of its unintended consequences, namely its social and economic impact to American Samoa.

About 26 % of all U.S marine waters are designated as marine protected areas, and 52 percent of those protected areas are in the Pacific, fueling a common complaint from WESPAC that Pacific island communities bear most of the costs associated with closing off federal waters.

WESPAC when former President Barack Obama expanded the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument, noting the cultural and economic impact of closing off large swathes of ocean to Hawaii’s fishing industry and skepticism about the monument expansion’s conservation benefits.

Still, Governor David Ige in June, which Biden can authorise through executive order.

Papahanaumokuakea, in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, also was on the council agenda last week, as WESPAC was on what kind of non-commercial permitting system it wants to include in the monument, which is in the process of becoming a national marine sanctuary.

The various regulations presented to the council also have generated disagreement, leading to a council decision to hold public meetings on the regulations before making a final decision in December.

The discussion centred largely around how to encourage non-commercial fishing, in particular Native Hawaiian fishing practices, in the monument expansion area, where there is currently no known fishing activity. Creating a permitting and record-keeping system would allow non-commercial fishers to enter the monument to fish.

There has been support within the council to allow non-commercial fishing activities in the monument for Hawaii residents, but opponents and skeptics, including Native Hawaiians in the Papaha ­naumokuakea Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, have argued that the monument waters were traditionally used for important cultural reasons.

Council member Shae Kamaka ‘ala shared the working group’s concerns during the meeting.

“It’s revered as very sacred, and our relationships go beyond the gathering of resources for food, ” Kamaka ‘ala said. “It’s not a place where we traditionally actively went to harvest food”

WESPAC, which is exploring the inclusion of “customary exchange, ” a type of subsistence fishing that would allow fishers to take fish caught in the monument expansion area back home to trade and barter it and be eligible for fishing trip reimbursements, was also opposed by the working group.