Council: Proposed marine monument expansion threatens Pacific economies
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council has asked the White House to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the “unintended consequences” of the proposed expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Michael Goto, chair of the council’s Fishing Industry Advisory Committee, said the proposed plan to stretch the cordon around the existing marine sanctuary jeopardizes U.S. fisheries as they face “death by a thousand cuts.”
The council asked pertinent U.S. agencies to evaluate the “social and economic impacts” of the proposed marine expansion “through a transparent and public process.”
The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which covers approximately 495,189 square miles of open ocean, is nearly five times the size of all the U.S. national parks combined. The proposed expansion would add another 425,639 square miles to the existing marine monument.
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“The expansion will only benefit a few, and will severely impact the American Samoa economy that is 90 percent dependent on the tuna industry,” said Archie Soliai, council chair and director of the American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources.
During a meeting in Honolulu on Thursday, Soliai asked officials of the Department of the Interior and the National Marine Fisheries Service “to weigh in on the impact that the proposed expansion would have on American Samoa.”
He pointed out that if the tuna industry collapses, American Samoa would be completely dependent on the federal government.
Judith Guthertz, former Guam senator and newly-inducted member of the council, said the proposed expansion of the monument “is an emotional issue for people in the territories.”
“We don't really have a voice in Congress. We don’t elect the president and we have to depend on Hawai‘i’s support,” Guthertz said. “Just because we live in the territories, doesn’t mean it should rob us of the opportunity to be treated as Americans.”
In June, the Pacific Remote Islands Coalition petitioned President Biden to further expand the monument, proposing full protection for the waters surrounding Howard and Baker Islands as well as Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll.
The council said it will request the coalition “to directly address and consult with fishing communities and local fishery management agencies in the U.S. Pacific territories.”
Sam Rauch, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs at NMFS, reported that the national seafood strategy and conservation efforts have been "successful."
Crediting the Fishery Management Councils, Raunch said, “90 percent of stocks are not subject to overfishing and 80 percent not overfished.”
Fish catch has been well-managed during the first half of 2022, the council said, citing the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center's report on the performance of the 140 Hawai‘i longline vessels.
"Compared to 2021, the fishery had a relatively low bigeye tuna catch (89,000 fish, down 14,000) and catch per unit effort. Even though the catch was low, the fish price was high, so fishermen were able to recoup their operating costs," the report states. "Yellowfin tuna catches have trended upward since 2015, increasing 5,000 fishes from 2021 to 42,000, and swordfish catch is up about 1,000 to 9,000 fishes."
The council noted that nine vessels of the American Samoa longline fleet had an increased albacore tuna catch rate from January to June 2022 compared to the same period last year–13.26 versus about 9 fish per 1,000 hooks.
"Approximately 12 fish caught per 1,000 hooks is considered a break-even point for fishermen in terms of the costs and benefits of each fishing trip," the council said. "American Samoa longline fishery catch rates have declined by at least 50 percent since 2002, so such a significant increase in fishery performance is encouraging."
Rauch said two federal laws, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, have $1 billion for habitat and coastal restorations and $2.6 billion for coastal resiliency work, respectively.
By end of the year, he added, the federal government will “provide an atlas of conservation areas and a working definition for conservation” based on the Biden administration’s "America the Beautiful 30x30" initiative.
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