"A primary purpose of marine reserves is to help keep the fishing business viable..."
The Conservancy's Palmyra Atoll Program Director
By Alex Wegmann
Last month in a memo to President Donald Trump, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended reducing the size of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument — an area of 490,534 square miles south and to the west of Hawaiʻi that includes the waters surrounding Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Howland Island, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll and Wake Island.
Established by President George W. Bush in 2009 and expanded in 2014 by President Barack Obama, the monument prohibits commercial fishing within its boundaries. Although Zinke’s recommendations did not specify boundary size changes, shrinking the monument and allowing commercial fishing to resume are not in the best interests of the U.S. and the future of its Pacific fisheries.
Current boundaries and protections of the monument should be maintained. Here’s why.
Nearly 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are being harvested at or beyond their sustainable limits. Leading scientists and conservation experts strongly recommend that to ensure the health and productivity of our oceans, 30 percent of those oceans need to be fully protected in marine reserves. The global total percentage of protected seas is only between 3 percent and 6.35 percent.
Current Boundaries Aid Migratory Fish Species
Science indicates that protection offered by reserves helps highly mobile fish species, like tuna, by providing migration corridors, nurseries, spawning and feeding sites. In 2014, when a portion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument boundaries were expanded to the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, the monument added 250 seamounts where tuna and oceanic sharks are known to congregate.
The islands, atolls and ocean areas of the monument are remote, virtually uninhabited and their protection affects very few human users. Unlike nearly all other areas of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, there truly are no human resident stakeholders living in these areas. No subsistence or traditional fishing or gathering occurs now or occurred historically.
During the public comment period for the proposed Monument expansion in 2014, more than 1,500 Hawaiʻi residents and 135,000 U.S. citizens were joined by the Hawaiʻi governor, scientists, businesses and cultural practitioners from around the Pacific in support of the monument expansion out to the U.S. EEZ. The U.S. tuna fishing fleets were the only industry operating in the area.
The industry expressed its concerns about the expansion via meetings with members of Congress, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the White House. In response to those concerns, the proposed boundary expansion was reduced by 291,000 square miles — 39 percent smaller than initially proposed.
Economic Impact Is Negligible
The economic impact of the monument is negligible. The U.S. Pacific longline and purse seine fleets are meeting their scientifically established quotas for tuna and have been able to buy more allotments from other Pacific island locations so their vessels are not idled or affected by the monument limitations.
In September of last year, and in the summers of 2015 and 2016, the longline tuna fleet met its authorized annual quota of bigeye tuna and then bought more quota from other Pacific islands. Likewise, the U.S. Pacific purse seine fleet is using its own and buying additional allotments of fishing days for skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye tuna in Pacific waters.
Worth noting is that bigeye tuna is down to only 16 percent of its estimated population before large-scale fishing began. A primary purpose of marine reserves is to help keep the fishing business viable because tuna reproduce far more successfully when they are allowed safe places to breed and mature.
Alex Wegmann is the Palmyra Program Director for The Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi. The Nature Conservancy is co-owner and co-manager with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of Palmyra Atoll. This op-ed originally appeared in Civil Beat, an on-line Honolulu news outlet.