Reef Madness: The Trump Administration’s Plan To Hand a Coral Ecosystem to the Fishing Industry

Sasha Kramer June 12, 2018

A green turtle swims through Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, part of Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended shrinking the monument and opening its waters to commercial fishing. (Kydd Pollock / USFWS - Pacific Region / Wikimedia Commons)

In April 2017, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed an exec­u­tive order direct­ing Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke to pro­duce the review, declar­ing that America’s net­work of nation­al mon­u­ments is the result of an egre­gious abuse of pow­er” and a mas­sive fed­er­al land grab.”

Zinke’s ensu­ing review pro­pos­es changes to 10 mon­u­ments: It rec­om­mends that the size of four be reduced, and that eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty, such as com­mer­cial fish­ing, min­ing and log­ging, be rein­stat­ed in anoth­er six. Even before the final review was released Dec. 5, 2017, Trump began to take action on these rec­om­men­da­tions, cut­ting Bear Ears Nation­al Mon­u­ment by 85 per­cent and shrink­ing Grand Stair­case-Escalante Nation­al Mon­u­ment to half of its orig­i­nal size to pave the road for oil and gas explo­ration.

Zinke’s rec­om­men­da­tion also issues an equal­ly dan­ger­ous attack on marine mon­u­ments in both the Pacif­ic and Atlantic Oceans. He rec­om­mends shrink­ing the Pacif­ic Remote Islands Marine Mon­u­ment, a net­work of islands and atolls that forms the world’s largest marine reserve at near­ly 500,000 square nau­ti­cal miles. Zinke also advo­cat­ed that the com­mer­cial fish­ing ban in the monument’s waters be revoked.

Cur­rent­ly, com­mer­cial fish­ing is banned in the ocean area that extends out to 200 nau­ti­cal miles from the islands’ shore­lines. Zinke pre­scribes a trans­fer of man­age­ment of the mon­u­ment from the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA) to the his­tor­i­cal­ly cor­rupt West­ern Pacif­ic Region­al Fish­ery Man­age­ment Coun­cil (Wes­pac), which cur­rent­ly over­sees a vast ter­ri­to­ry of 1.5 mil­lion nau­ti­cal square miles.

Trump has not yet act­ed, but con­ser­va­tion­ists are con­cerned that Zinke’s rec­om­men­da­tions could spell dis­as­ter for the mon­u­ment, and wor­ry that Wes­pac would priv­i­lege com­mer­cial fish­ing over the needs of the ecosystems.

I’m not aware of any enti­ty that is as con­sis­tent­ly anti-con­ser­va­tion as Wes­pac,” says Paul Achitoff, a Hon­olu­lu-based envi­ron­men­tal attorney.

Wespac’s Cor­po­rate Agenda

The Pacif­ic Remote Islands Marine Mon­u­ment, locat­ed about 1000 miles from Hawaii, is home to more than 300 species of fish and 100 species of coral. The mon­u­ment serves as a sanc­tu­ary for aquat­ic endan­gered and deplet­ed organ­isms, includ­ing sea tur­tles, pearl oys­ters, giant clams, reef sharks and coconut crabs.

Bob Rich­mond, a coral reef biol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii at Manoa, tells In These Times that the islands were select­ed to receive pro­tec­tion in part because of cli­mate change. The West­ern Pacif­ic Warm Pool—a migrat­ing body of warm water in the open ocean — is pro­ject­ed to push species of fish towards the Pacif­ic Remote Islands, Rich­mond explains, and thus the region will be an impor­tant refuge.

For near­ly a decade, com­mer­cial fish­ing has been banned in the monument’s waters. In 2009, Pres­i­dent Bush inau­gu­rat­ed the islands as a nation­al mon­u­ment and pro­tect­ed the monument’s waters out to 50 miles from the islands’ shores. In 2014, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma expand­ed that ter­ri­to­ry and fish­ing ban to cov­er the 200 nau­ti­cal miles of sea that cir­cle the monument’s islands.

Long­line fish­eries present a major threat to the Pacif­ic Remote Islands. As the name sug­gests, long­line fish­ing is a tech­nique employed by com­mer­cial fish­ers, in which 10-kilo­me­ter lines hold­ing thou­sands of bait­ed fish­ing hooks are let out to drift for hours or days. Long­lin­ers catch not only the tar­get­ed fish, but also larg­er ani­mals like seabirds, tur­tles, sharks and whales. One of the issues with the long­lin­ers is that they were catch­ing basi­cal­ly one shark for every two big­eye,” says Rich­mond. We know apex preda­tors, like sharks, are very impor­tant in main­tain­ing the sta­bil­i­ty of ecosys­tems like coral reefs.”

This sta­bil­i­ty has helped the islands evade the glob­al trends of coral mor­tal­i­ty. The ecosystem’s bio­di­ver­si­ty enables it to endure and bounce back from the warm­ing and acid­i­fi­ca­tion that have dev­as­tat­ed reefs else­where. All this could change if Wes­pac is put in charge of the monument’s future.

Long­lin­ers face inter­na­tion­al quo­tas designed to com­bat over­fish­ing, and Hawai­ian long­lin­ers have con­sis­tent­ly met these quo­tas even with­out access to the marine mon­u­ments. (Upon meet­ing the quo­ta, they have to close down for the year.) But in the past, Wes­pac has arranged agree­ments through which U.S. long­lin­ers buy up unused quo­tas from Samoa and Guam, enabling them to restart fish­ing. If the monument’s com­mer­cial fish­ing ban is revoked, the Hawai­ian long­lin­er fleet could quick­ly car­pet the cur­rent buffer zone of the Pacif­ic Remote Islands.

The con­nec­tion between the coun­cil and long­line com­mer­cial fish­ing indus­try is seam­less. Sean Mar­tin, a Wes­pac coun­cilmem­ber, is also the pres­i­dent of the Hawaii Long­line Asso­ci­a­tion, a trade group that rep­re­sents the com­mer­cial inter­ests of longliners.

In Feb­ru­ary 2017, Wes­pac exec­u­tive direc­tor Kit­ty Simonds solicit­ed the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to remove fish­ing restric­tions with­in marine mon­u­ments. Invok­ing Trump rhetoric, a page of her pre­sen­ta­tion read: Make Amer­i­ca Great Again, Return U.S. Fish­er­men to U.S. Waters.”

Wes­pac is fund­ed by grants from the Depart­ment of Com­merce, and as a fed­er­al grant recip­i­ent, is pro­hib­it­ed from using fed­er­al funds to engage in lob­by­ing activ­i­ties at both the fed­er­al and state lev­el. Achitoff believes that Wespac’s plea to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion was unlaw­ful: There’s no ques­tion that they did lob­by the admin­is­tra­tion. Their posi­tion has been that the law only pro­hibits leg­is­la­tors. Well I’ve read the laws and my view is that those lob­by­ing laws apply to the exec­u­tive branch as well as the legislature.”

In recent years, Wes­pac orga­nized to cut fed­er­al pro­tec­tions for green sea tur­tles, advo­cat­ed for Hawaii’s fish­er­men to catch more big­eye tuna than they’re allowed under inter­na­tion­al agree­ments, and active­ly opposed Obama’s expan­sion of both the Papahā­naumokuākea­he Mon­u­ment and the Pacif­ic Remote Islands. I’ve nev­er seen any oth­er coun­cil take such a con­sis­tent­ly stri­dent posi­tion against any and all marine pro­tect­ed areas,” said for­mer Wes­pac mem­ber Rick Gaffney to Earth Island Jour­nal.

The Trump administration’s plan to ran­sack pro­tec­tions from marine mon­u­ments is com­pound­ed by a bill approved by the U.S. House Com­mit­tee on Nat­ur­al Resources in Decem­ber 2017. The bill excus­es some fish­eries from annu­al catch lim­its and allows fish­ery coun­cils to over­rule mon­u­ment protections.

But stud­ies show that fish­ing-free MPAs actu­al­ly help the fish­ing econ­o­my. Well man­aged MPAs result in an increase in fish stocks — on aver­age, MPAs see an increase of 446 per­cent with­in a decade. This repro­duc­tion has a spillover effect, which pos­i­tive­ly impacts adja­cent fish­eries. Marine pro­tect­ed areas are like a bank account that pro­vides inter­est,” Rich­mond says. When the long­line fish­eries are out­side of the 200 mile lim­it [of the Pacif­ic Remote Islands], they can basi­cal­ly draw on that inter­est that’s being pro­duced. That’s the key to sus­tain­able fisheries.”

Marine Reserves Are Cli­mate Reserves

In addi­tion to over­fish­ing, cli­mate change rav­ages the oceans. Sea­wa­ter absorbs and retains car­bon diox­ide, which make sea­wa­ter more acidic, a phe­nom­e­non called ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion. Even a small increase in ocean acid­i­ty inter­feres with the way many marine organ­isms, includ­ing coral, pro­duce shells or plates. Increased sea­wa­ter tem­per­a­tures bleach and kill coral, while ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion hin­ders its abil­i­ty to recov­er. As a result, as of ear­ly 2016, 33 to 50 per­cent of the ocean’s reefs were seri­ous­ly dam­aged or destroyed.

In June 2017, an inter­na­tion­al team of sci­en­tists through the Uni­ver­si­ty of York (U.K.) pub­lished a study which shows that MPAs help not just ecosys­tems, but also humans adapt to cli­mate change. For exam­ple, the study found that MPAs safe­guard coastal com­mu­ni­ties from sea lev­el rise and grant them more time for adap­ta­tion. We were keen­ly aware that marine reserves can increase species’ abun­dance and help alle­vi­ate food scarci­ty, but our eval­u­a­tion showed reserves are a viable low-tech, cost-effec­tive adap­ta­tion strat­e­gy,” said Beth O’Leary, a co-author of the paper.

The Pacif­ic Remote Islands serve as ide­al sci­en­tif­ic lab­o­ra­to­ries. We need pris­tine reefs to see what we’ve lost else­where, to bet­ter man­age dam­aged reefs and to iso­late the effects of cli­mate change,” said Alan Fried­lan­der, a marine con­ser­va­tion biol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

If Trump fol­lows through on Zinke’s cor­po­rate pro­tec­tion­ist agen­da it would jeop­ar­dize one of the world’s last thriv­ing coral reef ecosys­tems. Despite their claims, the U.S. fish­ing econ­o­my and U.S. soci­ety need MPAs like the Pacif­ic Remote Islands to fos­ter resilience in the face of cli­mate change and overfishing.

Sasha Kramer has a degree in envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies and has been pub­lished by Oak­land Insti­tute. She is a win­ter 2018 In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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