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Scientists say proposed expansion of marine monument lacks supporting data

Updated: Sep 16


Photo courtesy of NOAA

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan


Scientists with the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council have raised concerns over an "overwhelming lack of data" to support the proposed expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.


Citing the presentation delivered Tuesday by Bob Richmond, University of Hawai‘i professor, during the council's meeting in Honolulu, members of the

Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) were unpersuaded by the "theorized benefits" of the proposed monument expansion.


The scientists noted, for example, that tropical tuna stocks in the waters that are proposed to be closed off are "not considered overfished nor experiencing overfishing based on internationally accepted best available science and that of U.S. fisheries."


“The SSC promotes developing marine protected areas based on scientific evidence,” said David Itano, a committee member.


“It is important to understand the biology and fish stock dynamics, as well as how they interact with fisheries. If we are going to preserve U.S. fisheries that are accepted as the world’s best-managed, we have to stop taking away their garden," Itano said.


The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which covers approximately 495,189 square miles of open ocean, coral reef and island habitats, is the largest marine sanctuary in the United States. It is nearly five times the size of all the U.S. National Parks combined and nearly twice the size of the state of Texas.


Resting within the marine monument's boundaries are seven national wildlife refuges: Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands, Johnston, Wake and Palmyra Atoll, and Kingman Reef.


According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument sustains a diversity of species including corals, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, seabirds, land birds, insects, and vegetation not found anywhere else in the world.


"Many threatened, endangered, and depleted species thrive in the area, including the green and hawksbill turtles, pearl oysters, giant clams, reef sharks, coconut crabs, groupers, humphead and Napoleon wrasses, bumphead parrotfish, dolphins, and whales," the fisheries agency said.


Environmental activists endorsed the proposed expansion which they said is crucial for ocean conservation.


But the council's scientific committee added that the proposed expansion areas "constitute a small portion of total fishing pressure."


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Scientists argued that data streams from human activities, such as fishing, that would be used for monitoring the status of the ecosystem would be dissolved if more areas were to be cordoned off.


“Our actions are part of the ecosystem, therefore we are the stewards,” said Jason Biggs, a committee member from Guam.


Domingo Ochavillo from American Samoa also warned of the "disproportionate impact" of the monument expansion on the territory’s economy, which relies on fish delivered to the StarKist cannery.


He said purse seine vessels that fish in the potentially closed areas would fish in the area of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and offload in Ecuador.

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The monument was established in 2009 by President George W. Bush and was subsequently expanded by President Barack Obama in 2014. Commercial fishing is prohibitted within the monument.


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 proposed expansion would add another 425,639 square miles to the existing marine monument.


The council's scientific committee, however, said the expansion proposal overlooked the indigenous cultural and environmental justice issues.


At Tuesday's meeting in Honolulu, the SSC also discussed alternatives for fishing regulations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, forming a working group to discuss the definition of “subsistence fishing.”


"The group developed several variations with or without customary exchange and cost recovery and will provide options for the council’s consideration at its meeting next week," the council said in a press release.




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