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‘Be mindful of the decisions you make’

US territories up in arms about Washington’s plan to expand Pacific Remote Islands marine sanctuary

By Bryan Manabat

Saipan—The National Marine Fisheries Service last month approved the Marine Conservation Plan for Pacific insular areas, paving the way for the federal government to enter into a fishery agreement that would allow foreign fishing within the U.S. exclusive economic zone around the Pacific Remote Island Areas.

While no foreign fishing is currently allowed in Pacific Remote Island Areas, the possibility of opening it up to outsiders while, at the same time, the federal government is proposing restrictions on local fishing, doesn’t sit well with U.S. territories.

In a joint letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, CNMI Gov. Arnold I. Palacios, Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and American Samoa Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga expressed concern over the White House’s plan to expand the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument.

The marine sanctuary currently covers 495,189 square miles in the central Pacific Ocean, encompassing seven islands and atolls: Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Island, Johnston, Wake, and Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef. The Biden administration plans to close off another area southwest of Hawaii.

"We are alarmed and concerned over the prospect of expanding potential fishery closures through designating a marine sanctuary within the full U.S. economic exclusive zones of the Pacific Remote Island Areas, which already include a Marine National Monument," the territorial governors said.

Saipan residents voiced their concerns about the Biden administration's plan to expand the Pacific Remote Islands marine sanctuary. Photo by Bryan Manabat

During a recent scoping meeting on Saipan, Joseph Deleon Guerrero, a fisherman, said he came to find out the impact of marine expansion on local fisheries. "Somebody says it won’t affect our territorial waters, but outside of our 3 miles is the U.S. exclusive economic zone that would have an impact here,” he said. “Fishermen from every island, such as Guam, Tinian, Saipan, Rota, rely on offshore reefs. If you are going to regulate it, we would like to know how.”

Another Saipan resident, John Gourley, expressed concerns over what he called “power imbalance” between the local and federal governments. He said the marine monument expansion would diminish the local government’s management authority over marine natural resources in the Western Pacific.

“Those of us who live in affected island communities can’t help but think that the federal government’s goal is to completely take away our commercial fishing and seabed mining rights from the Pacific islanders,” he said. "Because the CNMI cannot vote for the U.S. president, has a non-voting congressional delegate and no senator, it makes it easy for D.C. politicians to create or expand a marine monument with little negative political repercussions.”

Leo Pangelinan, a student of traditional navigation and wayfinding, said while he supports conservation, he wanted to get an assurance that traditional seafarers can have access to the islands being proposed as a sanctuary.

"I looked at this map, where the proposed sanctuary areas are. I can tell it’s right on the path of our traditional sea routes that connect us,” Pangelinan said. “Our generation, and the generation before mine, are just beginning to reopen these sea routes. There is nothing that says that the active seafaring community that needs to sail through this sanctuary will be given access. I see permitting but it’s restricted to scientists and educators.”

Ross Manglona, resident executive of the CNMI Indigenous Affairs Office, said the islanders have relied on the Pacific waters for thousands of years. “We’ve been able to conserve our fisheries for that many years,” he said. “NOAA needs to be looking at conservation areas in the Chesapeake Bay, but why is the guy from the Chesapeake Bay telling me how to run my fisheries?”

In their letter to Biden, the territorial governors asked why the islands’ “already disadvantaged and marginalized communities carry a disproportionate burden for meeting national conservation goals. We do not believe taking further action to fully close waters around the Pacific Remote Island Areas [is] necessary to fulfill the aspirations of your 'America the Beautiful' initiative.”

Sanctuary designation would allow NOAA to augment the existing protections for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument with additional regulatory and non-regulatory tools, and to conserve additional areas outside the monument's existing boundary. The proposed sanctuary would not include terrestrial areas or diminish the protections of the existing monument designations.

“You must be mindful of the decisions you make so that the interests of small fishing communities are not disregarded,” Mauga said at the opening of the 195th meeting of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council in Pago Pago on June 27.

American Samoa officials warned that expanding the sanctuary would devastate the territory’s economy, in which 80 percent of all private sector jobs and exports are related to fishing and canning.

“The ocean and its marine resources have sustained our Fa‘asamoa for thousands of years. These abundant natural resources have provided food on our table and supported our people, especially during calamities,” he said. “Our community went back to farming and fishing when we closed our borders during the Covid-19 pandemic. The ocean is what has sustained us and will continue to do so for years to come.”

Rep. Uifa’atali Amata Coleman Radewagen, American Samoa’s delegate to Congress, said the proposed expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands sanctuary runs counter to the U.S. government's "Buy American" policy.

"China is subsidizing their fishing fleet while the United States is cannibalizing its own fleet through fishing prohibitions, overregulation and abandonment of our own fishing rights," she said.

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