“How much time should we devote to putting our two cents in?” asked Linda Paul at a recent meeting of the federal Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Advisory Council.
In the saga over the pending designation of the reserve as a National Marine Sanctuary, the reserve advisory council, or RAC, had been the steadfast conservationist, endorsing the most stringent restrictions on extractive activities, especially commercial bottomfishing, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. That is, until its June 2005 meeting where some of its members were swayed by testimony given by bottomfisherman Bobby Gomes that he and the few others with federal permits to fish in those far, vast waters, have little or no impact on the ecosystem. At that meeting, the RAC abandoned the idea of banning fishing within sensitive habitats known as sanctuary preservation areas (SPAs), and instead, eliminated SPAs altogether and recommended that bottomfishermen with current permits be allowed to fish for 20 more years or until they decide to leave the fishery. After that, no more bottomfishing would be allowed. That was the final recommendation it gave to the National Marine Sanctuaries Program to be included in the draft environmental impact statement for the sanctuary.
Shortly following that decision, however, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, in approving its own Northwestern Hawaiian Islands marine refuge, immediately banned all commercial fishing in state waters there, and board chair Peter Young has since stated publicly, “The state is taking a philosophical position to have a place where you don’t take anything.”
What’s more, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected in October the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s recommended fishing rules that would have allowed bottomfishing to increase beyond what it is today, and kept the door open for reopening the lobster fishery, and perhaps a precious corals fishery as well.
With the change in climate regarding fishing rules following the RAC’s June meeting, some RAC members felt they needed to reconsider the council’s decision. At its January meeting, Paul, the council’s acting chair, raised the issue. By this time, however, the sanctuary program had already analyzed all of the alternatives that will be included in the DEIS.
The National Marine Sanctuaries Program is planning to issue its draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sanctuary in early June and complete a final EIS this winter following ten public meetings on all islands, as well as in Washington, D.C. Sanctuary designation is expected in early 2007.
Despite the fact that the her agency has already completed its alternatives analysis, acting reserve coordinator `Aulani Wilhelm advised the council that if it were able to craft a letter stating its new recommendation before the end of January, that letter could be included in NOAA’s review of the DEIS, a preliminary draft of which was to have been done by mid-January.
“Adjustments can be made…but it’s not a big window, time-wise,” she said.
RAC member Bill Gilmartin argued that changing its recommendation every time someone different is at the table damages the RAC’s credibility. And because other, more conservative, proposed alternatives were already being considered by the sanctuary program, “I don’t see a value in trying to work up something now if what we want is already up there.”
In response, Paul said she was concerned that the RAC endorsed a fishing regime that was not well analyzed. “It was never analyzed by a subcommittee. It popped in at our June meeting…It was done in the course of half an hour,” she said.
RAC member Cynthia Hunter added, “The RAC can be stupid on occasion, but we don’t have to stay stupid.”
Ellan Athas of the Ocean Conservancy and Cha Smith of KAHEA, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, also urged the RAC to change its recommendation.
“The RAC has been consistent with its conservation stance…[The RAC recommendation] …flies in the face of what the RAC has been saying…I don’t think we want to see an alternative that weakens the executive orders [that established the reserve],” Athas said.
“I feel the process was hijacked temporarily and now you’re back on track,” Smith said. “Provide a very specific alternative to NOAA that best protects the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for all time.”
Despite the skepticism expressed by some RAC members that any new recommendations would have little effect on NOAA’s decision-making, the RAC voted to send a letter to NOAA listing standards that it believes should be included in a preferred alternative, including the permanent phase-out of all fishing and other extractive, non-research, non-Native Hawaiian subsistence activities within one to five years; allowing research consistent with needs for conservation, preservation, and protection of the region and a sanctuary-approved research plan; and supporting the state’s recommendation that any rules for the proposed sanctuary be promulgated under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (rather than the Magnuson-Stevens Act that currently governs fisheries in federal waters).
At the request of RAC member Jessica Wooley, the RAC included in its letter a request that NOAA consider an alternative that would close all fisheries and ban extractive uses (excluding appropriate research) and commercial activities immediately or within one year of sanctuary designation.
Wilhelm had explained that her office had rejected that alternative because it was not consistent with the goals and objectives of the sanctuary, which allow for continued
— Teresa Dawson
Volume 16, Number 9 March 2006