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World’s Largest Protected Marine Zone Threatened By Trump Order

Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument is the largest fully protected marine zone in the world

When Donald Trump called for a review of some of America’s most spectacular land and seascapes last month, he clearly intended to toss out their protected status and tap them for their oil, gas, and minerals.

The president ordered the Department of Interior to review as many as 27 large national monuments created over the past two decades under the Antiquities Act by presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Trump’s action could open up almost 1.2 million square miles of land and sea for development.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National MonumentPhoto by kris krüg The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is the largest conservation area in the world. It encompasses more than 582,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean — an area larger than all the country's national parks combined. Many of the islands and shallow water environments are important habitats for rare species such as the threatened green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

“Catering to the extractive industries and their allies in Congress, this order is part of a much broader, well-funded agenda to seize America’s best assets and turn them into cash cows for oil, gas and mining companies,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “We will fight every last rollback on behalf of the American people.”

Williams could have added fish to the list of assets to be sold off — in particular, the swordfish, tuna, sharks, and groupers that live within the expansive boundaries of the largest monument on the list: the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the state of Hawaii.

Papahānaumokuākea is much more than a sanctuary for fish. The remote archipelago northwest of Kauai, known for its coral reefs and dense bird populations, is fully protected against all extractive activities, which means that with few exceptions, no one can remove any living thing, cultural artifact, or even a piece of coral from there. The Trump order could wipe all those protections away.

Scientists have documented 7,000 endemic and endangered species living among the chain of 120 atolls, reefs, shoals, pinnacles, islands, and seamounts. Also known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, it is larger than any fully protected wilderness, park, or marine reserve ever created on Earth.

Papahānaumokuākea provides more protection to the northwestern Hawaiian Islands than Yellowstone National Park provides to northwestern Wyoming. The key difference is human access. Access to the marine reserve is allowed only for conducting cultural practices and research, habitat restoration and scientific work, and to develop educational and media products. General visitation is not allowed. Moreover, the islands are far too remote for most tourists. Nihoa Island, the southernmost point in the monument, is 160 miles from Kauai. You have to travel another 1,200 miles to reach Kure Atoll at the other end of the archipelago. The public is encouraged to enjoy the islands from afar, through books or videos.

The massive, 583,000 square mile marine national monument — almost six times larger than Oregon — comprises almost half of the entire area within the 27 national monuments affected by the Trump order. At the signing ceremony in late April, Trump couched his reasons for eliminating the monuments in terms of advancing states’ rights.

“Today, we are putting the states back in charge,” Trump said. He said that his order would “end another egregious abuse of federal power, and … give that power back to the states and to the people, where it belongs.”

But Papahānaumokuākea’s creation in 2006 under Bush was hardly an example of abuse of federal power, or a loss of state’s rights. The state of Hawaii not only supported the national monument, but two state agencies are among its co-managers, along with two federal agencies.

Bigeye SolderfishPhoto by Greg McFall/NOAAThe extensive coral reefs found in Papahānaumokuākea are home to over 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

President Obama quadrupled its size in 2016. Over the last century, seven US presidents —including three Republicans and four Democrats — have protected the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, starting with Theodore Roosevelt who created the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation in 1909 out of fear that a soaring demand for feathers for women’s hats would decimate important nesting colonies of several species of seabirds.

“Papahānaumokuākea is a unique contiguous cultural seascape that holds tremendous historic, cultural, and scientific value for Native Hawaiians and all Americans,” says Spencer Wong of the state of Hawaii’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “We believe that the current size and structure of this monument, and OHA’s place as a co-trustee for the area, should be maintained.”

Trump’s order could, however, fulfill the dream of a handful of fishing operators who have been trying to roll back environmental protections in the area since the late 1990s when federal courts began shutting down fisheries that had been devastating the area’s fragile ecology.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a federal advisory board that helps manage fisheries in US waters in the Pacific, has been lobbying Congress for years to shrink or kill the monument or at least allow fishing to resume in the area. The council, known as Wespac, is one of eight regional fishing advisory boards created by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

"The Antiquities Act was meant to protect small places,” says Paul Dalzell, a scientist with Wespac, which is based in Honolulu. “Stop them from being overrun by tourists or being stripped by souvenir hunters. And it's supposed to be for the smallest area possible. It was never intended to parcel off great large areas of land or indeed to be applied to make these huge expansions of water."

In all, Wespac sent five letters to Obama last year protesting the monument and his plans for expansion, In one, Wespac claimed that before 2006, the area “supported low­impact, sustainable fisheries that supplied Hawaii with half of its local bottomfish and the majority of its local lobster.”

But two federal courts and many scientists have found Wespac’s fisheries to far from healthy.

In 1999, Federal Judge David Ezra closed the longline fishery in the North Pacific, Wespac’s most valuable fishery, after it had decimated populations of several sea turtles, including the leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley, and the green turtles. The longliners fasten thousands of baited hooks to lines that extend for up to 60 miles. When turtles cross the lines, their long pectoral fins can get tangled, causing some to drown. Others bite the bait and get hauled on deck. Dead or alive, these turtles are tossed back as industrial waste. Studies show about a third of the injured turtles die.

NOAA Teams Collect Marine DebrisPhoto by courtesy of NOAAEach year the USFWS, the State of Hawaii, and NOAA staff and volunteers collect tons of marine debris, especially fishing equipment, from the atolls and throughout Papahānaumokuākea. In 1999, a federal court shut down the longline fishery in the North Pacific after it had decimated populations of several sea turtles, including the leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley, and the green turtles.

The leatherback, a massive animal the size of a small car, was the hardest hit. “Their slide toward extinction has been the most rapid decline for any significant large vertebrate population in history,” according to Dr. Scott Eckert, a leading leatherback expert at Principia College. In recent decades, Western Pacific leatherbacks have declined more than 80 percent and Eastern Pacific leatherbacks have declined by more than 97 percent, according to NOAA. After making adjustments in its gear, the longline fishery resumed operations in the area in 2003.

Meanwhile, in 2000, Federal Judge Samuel King closed the lobster fishery in the area after finding that it placed the Hawaiian monk seal in jeopardy of extinction. The lobster, an important item in the seal’s diet, never recovered from heavy fishing by a small number of high-powered boats. The fishery has never reopened.

Ed Ebisui, chair of the Wespac council, asked Obama last year to rescind the monument, saying that it had deprived longliners of about 10 percent of their catch. He said the closures cost it about $8 million a year, and asked for compensation. “We believe the federal government should mitigate these impacts through direct compensation to Hawai`i longline fishery participants,” he wrote.

But, as recent data published by NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center shows, the monument did not doom the longline industry. Far from it. Since 2003, when the Hawai`i’s longline fishery reopened, the number of Hawai`i-based longline fishing vessels has steadily increased. The data shows that there are now 142 longline vessels licensed to participate in the fishery, compared with 125 boats in 2005. Harvests of tuna steadily increased from 176,000 fish caught in 2005 to 280,000 in 2016. Harvests of billfish — a category that includes blue and striped marlin as well as swordfish — have remained roughly steady. In 2016, the fleet caught about 54,000 billfish, down slightly from the 55,000 it caught in 2005.

An October 2016 study by the fishery science center showed that from 2000 to 2012, longliners saw a 4 percent increase in revenue from tuna harvests and an 18 percent bump in the value of their swordfish catch

“They just moved their boats to a different part of the ocean,” says Paul Atchitoff, a lawyer for Earthjustice who filed the successful Hawaiian monk seal and leatherback sea turtle protection lawsuits.

.Rick Gaffney, a recreational fisherman in Hawai`i and a former member of the Wespac council, says “it would be extremely short-sighted to reverse a 110 year history of protections for the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, that were proscribed by a half-dozen US Presidents, based on the false pretenses of a longline fishery that doesn't even employ Americans.”

He says fishing in recent years “has often been as exploitative as the original decimation of seabird colonies for feathers, that was stopped by order of President Teddy Roosevelt.”

Cha Smith, a former director of Kahea, a coalition of Native Hawaiians and environmentalists that helped lead the grassroots campaign to protect the islands, says the longline fishery “is the most destructive fishery practice in existence. The ‘economics’ of this fishery are based on the illegal use of slave labor. This has been documented and subsequently ignored. This fishery would not exist without immigrant captive workers.”

She was referring to an Associated Press investigation last year that found undocumented workers on the longline boats do not have visas and are not allowed to come ashore for years at a time. The AP investigation found “men living in squalor on some boats, forced to use buckets instead of toilets, suffering running sores from bed bugs and sometimes lacking sufficient food. It also revealed instances of human trafficking.” The industry has denied the allegations.

After Bush created Papahānaumokuākea, governments around the world established similar large marine reserves in their own oceanic territories, including Palau, Australia, New Zealand, Easter Island, and Chagos. Last December, the United States and New Zealand created the world’s largest marine reserve — the Ross Sea Marine Reserve waters off Antarctica. The Ross Sea reserve is slightly larger than Papahānaumokuākea, but only 72 percent of it is protected.

If Trump signs another order erasing the monument designations or reducing their areas, it’s possible that the world’s largest fully protected marine zone would be not in the Pacific, but in the Ross Sea. Gaffney doesn’t mince words when expressing what he thought about the executive order: “Someone should take his pen away.” Gaffney says.

Take Action: The US Department of the Interior is taking public comment on Trump's executive order to review National Monuments designated under the Antiquities Act of 1906. To ensure consideration, written comments relating to the Bears Ears National Monument must be submitted before May 26, 2017. Written comments relating to all other National Monuments must be submitted before July 10, 2017. People may submit written comments online at by entering “DOI-2017-0002” in the Search bar and clicking “Search,” or by mail to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW., Washington, DC 20240.

Paul Koberstein
Paul Koberstein is editor of Cascadia Times, an online environmental journal published from Portland, Oregon. Koberstein has been a staff writer for The Oregonian, a daily newspaper published in Portland, and Willamette Week. In 2004 he won the John B. Oakes Award for distinguished environmental journalism for articles on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

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