Many eyes have been on western public lands this month as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump announced plans to scale back national monuments, most notably in Utah.
But outside the spotlight of Utah’s Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante monuments, another move is underway to curb ocean protections on both coasts. In a report to the White House earlier this month, Zinke recommended that Trump reduce boundaries or alter rules governing marine monuments in the waters off New England and Hawaii.
Zinke focused specifically on the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monuments, a vast collection of underwater canyons and mountains 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, which is home to sea turtles, several species of whales, and deep-sea corals; Hawaii's 13,000-square-mile Rose Atoll marine monument; and the 490,000-square-mile Pacific Remote Islands marine monument, which connects a string of islands and atolls in the central Pacific off Hawaii.
Zinke’s report did not target Papahānaumokuākea, the monument that protects the ocean around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands out to the 200-mile limit of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Trump has not yet acted on these recommendations, but he is being urged to do so by a regional fishing council that has fought for years to block or reverse ocean protections. In letters and a presentation with headlines such as "Make America Great Again: Return U.S. fishermen to U.S. waters," the board's chair and executive director have called monuments inconsistent with federal law, and have said that the White House should allow the fishing industry to regain access to waters closed by Trump's predecessors.
"The bottom line is that marine national monument designations in the western Pacific region are unnecessary for the conservation and management of fishery resources," leaders of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council wrote to the administration in May.
The fact that the council is a quasi-governmental body that recommends fishing policy to federal agencies on 1.5 million square miles of ocean has raised the hackles of some politicians, scientists, and environmentalists. Earlier this fall, U.S. Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, a Democrat from the Northern Marianas Islands, slammed the council in a hearing for what he considered its "improper" and "inappropriate" lobbying activities. Environmental groups alleging the same thing have repeatedly sought congressional inquiries or internal government reviews of the council.
Fishing Councils Serve a Purpose
The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (WESPAC) is one of eight regional councils around the country established by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act, which also established the 200-mile EEZ. The councils develop fishery management plans and set annual catch limits and other rules for everything from lobster and cod to shrimp and swordfish in America's ocean waters.
Those rules are approved and implemented by the fisheries service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Council seats are typically held by fishing industry representatives, scientists, or environmentalists. The point of the system is to involve knowledgeable local stakeholders in fisheries management.
In recent years that system has had considerable success at reducing overfishing. “America’s ocean fisheries are some of the best managed in the world. No question about it,” Molly Masterson of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wrote in a blog post this week. NOAA Fisheries statistics indicate that since 2000, 41 fish stocks that were previously overfished have been rebuilt to the point where they once again yield a healthy catch.
But there are ocean conservation goals, Masterson says, that go beyond “optimal yied” and the Magnuson Act. Late in his second term President Barack Obama focused on such issues, particularly in the Pacific. He used the authority granted him under the 1906 Antiquities Act to expand two massive marine monuments, Pacific Remote Islands and Papahānaumokuākea. Those waters are home to five species of endangered turtle, deep-water coral reefs that are thousands of years old, and 14 million seabirds living in the world’s largest tropical rookery.
"Monuments like these are absolutely essential," says Robert Richmond, a University of Hawaii coral reef scientist—for fisheries too, he says. "There's no question that if we don't set aside some of these areas as 'recharge zones' that the future of fisheries anywhere in the world are quite bleak. The data are overwhelming."
For example, Richmond says, if you leave fish alone to grow substantially larger, the number of offspring they produce can grow by thousands.
Management Versus Monument
Fishing regulators pushed back. Last year as Obama was contemplating his monument designations—he created the Northeast Canyons monument off New England too—all eight fishery councils from around the country wrote a joint letter objecting. Earlier this year, the councils' leadership reiterated the same concerns to President Trump. One of their chief concerns: Monuments take away their authority to regulate fishing.
"I suspect they see this as taking control from them over what they view as their waters," says Ray Hilborn, a University of Washington fisheries expert who works on the science committee that advises WESPAC. Monument designations are "fundamentally fisheries management actions. That's what the council is supposed to do."
"There are two reasons people in fisheries don't like this approach," Hilborn goes on. "One, it keeps us from taking advantage of the resources of the ocean to provide food. And two, people advocating for marine protected areas rarely look outside the area and say, 'We've just moved the fishing to somewhere else, and is the net effect positive or negative?'"
Hilborn argues that the Pacific monuments simply drove Hawaii's big-eye tuna longlining fleet farther out to sea. Richmond counters that even so, the fishing boats haven’t had any trouble catching their quota.
Which View Will Prevail?
Back in 2009, while George W. Bush was creating the marine monuments off the Hawaiian Islands, WESPAC was already heavily involved in fighting marine protected areas. It reached out to the president's council on environmental quality to express opposition to establishment of a Hawaiian coral reef ecosystem reserve, which was subsequently designated a marine sanctuary. The regional fisheries councils are allowed to lobby within the executive branch, and to testify before Congress when invited, but they’re not allowed to lobby Congress on legislation.
WESPAC has been the subject of formal calls for investigation by congressmen several times. Last year, Hawaii environmentalists complained the council was openly pushing against what eventually became the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea. NOAA's inspector general found that the council's activities violated no "laws, rules, regulations, or department policies." That didn't satisfy critics.
"I have been doing environmental law out of Hawaii for the last 23 years and I can't think of another organization—government or private—that is is more consistently anti-conservation than WESPAC," says Paul Achitoff, managing attorney of the mid-Pacific office of Earthjustice, an activist law firm. Achitoff says he has probably sued NOAA a dozen times to fight regulations proposed by the council.
Earlier this year, the council voted to ask the president to remove fishing prohibitions in the Pacific monuments. Zinke’s report follows that lead, recommending the president restore the council’s authority to regulate fishing in the Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll monuments, as well as the New England council’s authority over Northeast Canyons.
It's not yet known what action the Trump administration will take. Even if the president proposes changes to marine monuments, Achitoff doesn't think they will last.
"Do I think it will survive legal challenge? I don't," he says.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources this week approved a bill that environmentalists and even some fishermen say would dramatically undermine the Magnuson Act, by exempting many fisheries from annual catch limits and by extending the time limits for rebuilding overfished stocks. According to Masterson of the NRDC, the bill would also allow a regional council such as WESPAC to overrule protections established by a marine monument.