“I’m all for expanding marine protected areas. The bigger the better, as you know. The devil is in the details,” the Hawai`i Audubon Society’s Linda Paul said last month of the proposed expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument’s boundaries in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) from 50 nautical miles out to 200.
Last month, she and her fellow members of the NWHI Ecosystem Reserve Advisory Council (RAC) agreed to generally support the monument expansion, so long as the reserve’s boundaries are similarly expanded to ensure the entire area continues to be managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine sanctuaries office and not the National Marine Fisheries Service. The RAC also voted to allow permitted vessels to discharge wastewater within the expanded area and to support the provision of additional resources for management and enforcement. But the council stopped short of endorsing the full proposal floated earlier this year by several prominent native Hawaiian leaders. Specifically, the council did not reach consensus on whether the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs should become co-trustee of the monument and whether waters around Middle Bank just north of the Main Hawaiian Islands should be left out of the expansion so people from Ni`ihau and Kaua`i can continue to fish there.
The RAC, which is currently lacking any representatives from the fishing industry (they resigned), is expected to meet again to discuss the expansion further and perhaps reach consensus on a number of outstanding issues. If and when it meets again, the issue of who gets to continue to fish and where will certainly be revisited.
In the original letter from Polynesian Voyaging Society director Nainoa Thompson, former state Department of Land and Natural Resources director William Aila, Office of Hawaiian Affairs director Kamanaopono Crabbe, and others to President Barack Obama, one of the main arguments for an expanded monument was that it would help protect travel routes of several protected species, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
At last month’s meeting, Paul stood her ground against the proposal to keep part of Middle Bank — an important foraging area for monk seals — open to fishing. She cited David Laist of the Marine Mammal Commission, who has said more than once, “If you protect half a bank, you protect none of it.”
When asked by Paul to explain the reasoning behind the compromise, Bob Richmond, a coral reef expert working with the Pew Charitable Trust and a proponent of the expansion, replied, “There has to be a reality check. There’s science and what’s realistic. There was some realization there must be some balance. … On a particular bank, there are things that may be discussed. Frankly, we’re looking at the big picture.”
And what he means by ‘big picture’ is the effect a monument expansion will have not only on local fish stocks, but on ecosystems worldwide.
“If Hawai`i does this, I guarantee there’s going to be competition for the largest MPA [marine protected area],” he said.
Despite Richmond’s explanation, Paul said she would not consider ceding Middle Bank without hearing from the Marine Mammal Commission.
Even though it would be “politically expedient” to leave the bank out, the area is biologically important to monk seals, she said. “I’m not willing to give up. I’ve been hearing for too many years we’ve got a monk seal population that’s sliding down. It’s this group’s responsibility to protect that population,” she said.
To this, Richmond warned, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
At the meeting last month, a presentation by NOAA’s Daniel Wagner on the results of recent research cruises in the monument and proposed expansion area convinced at least one skeptical RAC member that there are vast natural resources outside the current boundaries that are worthy of protection.
Among other things, Wagner noted that 40 seamounts have now been mapped within the monument and there are many more that are known but haven’t yet been mapped. What’s more, he added, there are probably just as many seamounts outside the monument, within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, as within.
“I’ve been a doubter of expansion, envisioning this space as empty water … I was picturing an abyssal wasteland,” said RAC member and University of Hawai`i marine biology professor Cynthia Hunter. “The abyssal plains were not that at all, but high-density biological communities … I’m converted completely.”
While Wagner suggested the sea floor, rich in manganese, might one day be targeted for destructive mining, others, including Paul, suggested the threat was not imminent. Mining concerns aside, RAC member Eric Roberts, a U.S. Coast Guard representative, and Joshua DeMello of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac) asked Richmond what he saw as the resource threats in the unprotected area.
“What is the problem that you’re trying to solve that needs expansion? … Fishing is probably the only thing going on. There is no science that says there is overfishing in that area,” DeMello said.
In recent years, Hawai`i-based longliners set nearly 10 percent of their hooks in waters around the NWHI and caught about five to six percent of their total haul there, according to logbook reports. Richmond said he believed such a small cut in total catch is worth it given the potential environmental returns, especially when longliners catch the vast majority of their fish outside the U.S. exclusive economic zone.
When Roberts pressed Richmond to define the threat to the area’s resources, Richmond responded that it was the “overfishing issue,” and pointed to the decline in tuna stocks. “If we don’t take major action now, game over.” (Hawai`i longliners fish mainly for bigeye tuna, which has been found to be subject to overfishing in the Western and Central Pacific and is considered by some to be overfished. However, effort to catch bigeye is far heavier in the Western Pacific than it is in waters around Hawai`i.)
RAC member Rick Gaffney said he thought it would benefit fishers to have a large protected area that would feed surrounding waters.
“If we have to displace a small portion of the fishing industry, which happen to be newcomers … I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.
But apparently some state legislators — copied on an opposition letter Wespac sent to the White House — did. Last month, several of them sent their own letters denouncing the expansion for some of the same reasons Wespac had given. Given that, Tim Johns, RAC chair and also a former DLNR director, suggested at the meeting that longliners could be accommodated within the monument expansion and asked DeMello whether, if that were the case, Wespac would support expansion.
“Probably. We could get council members and all fishermen to support that,” DeMello replied.
Paul saw the controversy over longlining in the monument as an opportunity to gain greater protection for monk seals.
“Politics is horse trading. If we’re going to do some horse trading, I’d rather give something to the longliners and get Middle Bank. I think Middle Bank is more important. I feel sorry for Kaua`i fishermen, but what about longliners? They’re fishermen, too. You’re going to protect one group of fishermen at the expense of another. If we’re concerned about fishermen, we’ve got to be concerned about all of them, not some of them,” she said.
When it came down to voting on whether or not to support an accommodation for longliners, however, only a few RAC members, including Johns and Paul, supported it. Hunter also lamented that her concerns about manganese mining were brushed off.
After the final votes, Johns, apparently eager to have a decision on the matter made by September when the International Union for Conservation and Nature will hold its meeting in Honolulu, pressed the RAC to meet again so it can send an official letter to the White House this month. (Johns is the chair of the congress’s National Host Committee.)
— Teresa Dawson
Volume 26, Number 12 June 2016