• By Mar-Vc Cagurangan

Trump likely to revoke protection for Pacific marine sanctuaries


Marianas Trench is the deepest place on Earth. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Following his directive to open the Atlantic Ocean’s fully protected marine sanctuary to commercial fishing, President Donald Trump is expected to put two marine national monuments in the Pacific region on the chopping block as well, a move that will trigger a clash between conservationists and commercial fishers.

A federal agency is looking into the possible lifting of the fishing ban in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, which were established by President George W. Bush on Jan. 6, 2009.

"The National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO) is drafting management plans for two marine national monuments," Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Wespac) said after the conclusion of first day of its three-day virtual meeting on Thursday.

Wespac endorses the revocation of fishing restrictions in the Pacific marine sanctuaries, which were expanded by President Obama on Sept. 29, 2014. The monuments prohibit U.S. commercial fishing vessels from operating in nearly 600,000 square miles of U.S. exclusive economic zone waters.

During virtual meeting, PIRO Regional Administrator Michael Tosatto said NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are "working to identify new and emerging issues to inform the PRIMNM management plan planning process."

Tosatto also said the agencies are evaluating the timeline for public release of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument draft management plan.

"The council recommended that NMFS PIRO include the CNMI Monument Advisory Committee and the territory of Guam in the review of the draft management plan for the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument," Wespac said. "According to the presidential proclamations, the management plans were to have been developed within two years of establishment of the monuments."

Earlier this month, Trump signed a proclamation that greenlighted the resumption of fishing at the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England. The Obama administration closed off nearly 5,000 square miles of ocean in September 2016 to save whales and allow marine life to recover from overfishing.

The recall of national marine monuments is in line with the Trump administration's goal to rejuvenate the nation's industry amid the economic recession triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Pacific Environment is seeking to block the possible opening of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

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The San Francisco-based environment group has launched a petition, calling on Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to keep the Marianas Trench monument in place.

"Generally speaking, monuments benefit economies by improving fish stocks, which are able to grow and mature within these no-fishing zones and then move outside the area where they can be caught," the petition reads.

During Wespac's virtual meeting, Mike Seki, director of the NMFS Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), reported that the pandemic has caused revenue from Hawai'i commercial fisheries and markets to drop 80 percent due to restaurant closures and travel/visitor restrictions.

Seki also reported that three cruises on the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette and another on the NOAA ship Rainer have been cancelled due to Covid-19 impacts. Monk seal and turtle field camps have been delayed.

Fisheries data collection training, surveys, biosampling, lab work, etc. have been reduced or suspended.

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Wespac recommended that PIFSC coordinate with the council and American Samoa's Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources to determine viable logistic solutions to continue the American Samoa research cruise.

"American Samoa bottomfish has been determined recently by NMFS to be overfished and subject to overfishing," Wespac said. "The council has two years to develop and implement a rebuilding plan for the stock in federal waters. Most of the fishery occurs in waters 0 to 3 miles offshore under jurisdiction of the territory. Many fishery advisors, fishermen and scientists point to the lack of complete and accurate data as the reason for the pessimistic stock status determination."

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