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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Papahanaumokuakea Review Spurs Tension With Conservation Groups, Fisheries

President Donald Trump’s targeting of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwest Hawaiian Islands for national review has revived a lopsided debate between Native Hawaiians, senators, scientists and conservation groups in favor of the monument’s designation, and an activist fishery council mainly concerned with “maximizing longline yields.”

HONOLULU (CN) – President Donald Trump’s targeting of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwest Hawaiian Islands for national review has revived a lopsided debate between Native Hawaiians, senators, scientists and conservation groups in favor of the monument’s designation, and an activist fishery council mainly concerned with “maximizing longline yields.”

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council vocally opposed the monument’s expansion in 2016 during a public comment process, communicating that to the White House under the leadership of Executive Director Kitty Simonds. Simonds’ PowerPoint presentation at a recent Council Coordination Committee meeting detailed other monument areas in the Pacific under review, including the Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll, explicitly criticizing the designations as an abuse of the Antiquities Act. The PowerPoint concludes, “Make America great again. Return U.S. fishermen to U.S. waters.”

Established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Acts of 1976 and 1996, WESPAC is charged with reporting its recommendations for preventing overfishing and protecting fish stocks and habitat to the Commerce Department.

While WESPAC International Fisheries Enforcement and National Environmental Policy Act coordinator Eric Kingma believe that WESPAC’s communications with the president fall within the agency’s purview of advising the executive branch, others, including Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, consider the comments an illegal “lobby to expand WESPAC turf” and shape public policy.

WESPAC argues that monument expansion hampers longline fishermen from feeding Hawaii, which imports roughly 60 percent of the fish it eats. Pro-expansion groups such as Expand Papahanaumokuakea point out that only 5 percent of longliner take came from the monument; that longliners have recently reached their quota by summer, then resorted to buying unused blocks from other fleets; and that much of the longliners' take, including sashimi-grade bigeye tuna, is sold at auction to the mainland U.S., as well as to Japanese and other foreign buyers. The bigeye tuna catch, moreover, has been trending upward every year since the first year of logbook monitoring in 1991. In 2014, the Hawaii longline fleet caught a record 216,897 bigeye tuna, up 12 percent from 2013.

Expand Papahanaumokuakea campaign director Sheila Sarhangi worries that a subsequent executive order relating to oil drilling could also lead to mineral exploration and deep-sea mining in the monument. Papahanaumokuakea overlaps an area in the Central Pacific called the “Prime Fe-Mn Crust Zone,” which is of economic interest because of its rich stores of cobalt, nickel, manganese and other metals, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said he is examining monument designations to determine whether they have led to “loss of jobs, reduced wages and reduced public access” from being made “off limits for traditional uses like farming, ranching, timber harvest, mining, oil and gas exploration, fishing, and motorized recreation.”

The Trump administration’s stance is an abrupt departure from recent thinking about the valuation of public lands. In the wake of former President Barack Obama’s expansion of Papahanaumokuakea in 2016, then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell spoke at the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress in Honolulu.

“There has been a tendency in the past to only look at the value of selling resources for oil and gas or mineral development or mining,” Jewell said. “We really need to quantify the benefits of ecosystem services. There are legitimate, very important uses that aren’t being counted and need to be in the future.”

At the same panel, United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Erik Solheim noted, "There is one system failure of capitalism that we need to rectify: While the profit of destroying nature is always privatized, the costs are nearly always socialized. They are paid by the taxpayer or the global community or by our children and grandchildren. This is the real problem that we need to fix if we really want progress on conservation, because it speaks loudly to the need to get payment for equal system services and to enshrine conservation efforts in such a way that it gives benefits to people in economic and social terms."

Tracing the farthest, sunken reaches of the Hawaiian archipelago, the 580,000 square-mile monument is home to over 7,000 species, one-quarter endemic, including endangered monk seals, green turtles, sharks and whales, as well as ancient corals, recently-discovered deep reef systems, and creatures doubtless yet to be discovered.

Considered by Native Hawaiians to be a cosmological place from which all life arises and returns, the monument is akua, or sacred. In a terse, single-paragraph response to President Trump’s executive order calling for review of all monuments created under the Antiquities Act since 1996, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs wrote, “Papahanaumokuakea is a unique contiguous cultural seascape that holds tremendous historic, cultural, and scientific value for Native Hawaiians and all Americans. We believe that the current size and structure of this monument, and OHA’s place as a co-trustee for the area, should be maintained.”

Trump’s executive order calls on Zinke to consider “the requirements and original objectives” of the Antiquities Act, “including the Act’s requirement that reservations of land not exceed ‘the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.’”

But Papahanaumokuakea’s expansion was predicated in part on recent discoveries that protected species had been discovered traveling well beyond the original monument’s boundaries. It was also conceived of as a pu‘uhonua (sanctuary) for fish harassed all along their migratory routes by GPS and other technology.

The Department of the Interior is taking public comments on the monument until July 10.

Courthouse News has been providing in-depth features on some of the national monuments targeted for closure or reduction by the Trump administration, including the San Gabriel National Monument in California, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in California and Oregon, and the Ironwood Forest National Monument in Arizona. Click here for more CNS coverage on national monuments. 

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Categories / Environment, Government, National, Science

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