©2003 Cascadia Times
Plundering the Pacific
Western Pacific council pushes plan to quash historic coral reserve
Council puts corals, spiny lobster and rare monk seal at risk
so a few can profit
writing to ask for your help in reversing an '11th-hour decision'
by former President Clinton that will have a devastating economic
impact on the fishing industry of Hawaii,” Linda Lingle, then
a Republican candidate for governor of Hawaii, wrote in a letter
two years ago to U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
That decision had created the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Cor
Cascadia Times Fall 2003 issue, "Plundering the
Pacific," investigates the decline of the North Pacfic
Ocean and its wildlife in the wake of decades of industrial
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al Reef Ecosystem Reserve, which protects up to 70 percent of the
coral reefs in the U.S., culminating a century of preservation initiated
by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, or Wespac,
headed by executive director Kitty M. Simonds, had convinced Lingle,
to send Evans a letter calling for the annulment of the Executive
Orders which established the Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Cascadia Times, was
written by the Western Pacific council as part of its campaign to
undermine the historic reserve, and appears to be evidence that
the council was willing even to distort the facts to achieve this
But seven months later, Lingle determined that the reserve had
widespread support after hearing from a range of fishermen, fish
processors, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, scientists and
ordinary citizens who had united their communities to persuade the
White House to protect the distant islands from the management abuses
of Wespac and NOAA Fisheries. On Oct. 10, 2001, she sent a second
letter to Evans, retracting her opposition to the reserve and urging
him to go forward with it. She said she based her previous comment
on a “less than complete understanding” of the issue.
“After listening to individuals on both sides of the I issue,
I now urge you to allow the Executive Orders to stand...”
Lingle, now the governor of Hawai`i, learned that Clinton's order
was no 11th-hour decision at all, but a well-considered judgment
overwhelmingly supported by Hawaiians. Over the past three years,
26 federal and state hearings and scoping sessions have been held
on the management of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The public
has responded with an outpouring of 52,000 letters of support for
strong conservation measures. Only a tiny fraction — about
1 percent — of those who made a comment opposed the ecosystem
The council also told Lingle that the ecosystem reserve “will
cause great negative socioeconomic impacts to the state of Hawaii.”
They also said it could destroy all existing fisheries in federal
waters off Hawai`i that haven't already been shut down by the courts
for their impacts on endangered species.
None of this was true. The reserve allows existing fisheries to
continue as they are. As for the economic impacts, they would be
miniscule. No one fishes for lobsters anymore in the Northwestern
Hawaiian Islands. Thanks to the council's mismanagement, the small
fishery was already closed, preventing the six Northwestern lobster
vessels from setting traps. Only about nine boats participate in
the commercial bottomfish fishery there. The Executive Order grandfathers
in the existing and very small cadre of bottomfishers and the handful
of recreational fishers who brave the rough northern waters.
To those who follow the Western council closely, information that
it intentionally misled the soon-to-be-elected governor came as
no surprise. They say Simonds has been misleading the public and
policy-makers for years as she has attempted to maintain the healthy
stream of appropriations flowing to her small Council for the “management”
of NWHI fisheries, while catering to the handful of fishers who
dominate the council and who over the years have played a major
role in nearly driving to extinction two of the most endangered
large animals on the planet: leatherback sea turtle and the Hawaiian
“This is a story of a very small number of people holding
50 percent of U.S. ocean resources hostage,” says Stephanie
Fried, a senior scientist for Environmental Defense, a conservation
group. “It's also a story of a popular uprising led by Native
Hawaiian cultural practitioners, fishers, and environmentalists,
all working together to protect one of the last great ecosystems
After Bush took office, Simonds stepped up her campaign to dismantle
the new Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. With each fishery shut down
by the reserve, the council stands to lose federal dollars appropriated
for managing each of those fisheries. Her agenda called for maintaining
the council's cash flow by setting up a commercial industry to collect
deep sea corals, and to harvest fish in the fragile and shallow
coral reef areas surrounding remote atolls and islands, under a
"coral reef ecosystem" fishery plan. The Executive Order
creating the reserve does not allow these actions, but Simonds and
the council are now trying to weaken the order.
“It is such a perverse thought that the result of President
Clinton's actions to protect the coral reefs of the Northwestern
Hawaiian islands would result in industrial exploitation and harvesting
in these very coral reefs,” says Ellen Athas, who worked at
the Clinton White House on ocean issues.
“The coral reefs take so long to grow — you look at
4 inches and it's taken 400 years to get there. Scientists tell
us what magic they contain for us.”
When the White House looked at the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
for the first time, Athas said it saw an area rich in resources
in a relatively pristine condition. “The only people who would
battle against it are maybe a dozen fishermen. We never get the
opportunity anymore to see these places. Other places everything
is developed, the hotels are in place and the corals are all gone.”
Athas is not alone in finding it unfathomable to think that anyone
would oppose the reserve other than those who play power politics
or are somehow connected to the jewelry industry.
Of course, many people would find it unfathomable to learn what
Wespac did to the Hawaiian monk seal.
The seal's main breeding grounds lie in the most isolated archipelago
on earth, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, stretching 1,200 nautical
miles from the Main Hawai`i Islands to Kure Atoll.
The Northwestern Islands are also home to millions of seabirds
and rare green sea turtles, as well as 70 percent of all coral reefs
in the U.S.
During the last two decades, a frightening crash in the number
of monk seal pups has put the species in jeopardy. In a word, the
pups are starving.
In the 1800s, hunters decimated the population. In 1909, Republican
President Theodore Roosevelt issued an Executive Order to protect
the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and establish a wildlife refuge
system there. Since it was listed as endangered in 1976, the seal's
population crashed once again. In the 1970s, about 90 percent of
seal pups survived to adulthood. Two decades later, only about 10
Biologists say the total population is now only 1,400. The monk
seal is now considered to be highly endangered to the point that
a natural catastrophe could lead to extinction.
In 1999, three conservation groups — Greenpeace Foundation,
Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network
— successfully sued to stop Wespac from allowing the small
but high-impact 6-boat lobster fishery to continue to decimate lobsters.
The groups also cited the council's high-impact but small bottomfish
fishery around the islands as a cause. “The data strongly
suggest that the [lobster] fishery contributes to the starvation
of the monk seals,” the federal judge in the case ruled.
The council denied — and denies today — that its lobster
fisheries starved the monk seal pups. But a growing number of scientific
reports say otherwise.
In 1983, the federal monk seal recovery team called for studies
to determine how much of the seal's food was being caught by fishers.
In 1991, biologists with the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission called
on NOAA Fisheries to halt the lobster catch, and it did. In 1993,
NOAA Fisheries reopened lobster fishing, and, 424,000 lobsters were
Between 1997 and 2000 the annual lobster catch ranged between 200,000
During these years, as monk seal populations plummeted, the Marine
Mammal Commission again and again repeated its call for a halt to
the lobster fishery. They wrote more than twenty letters between
1991 and 2000 expressing deep concern. But the Western council kept
responding by saying, “Bugger off — there is no scientific
proof here,” says Paul Achitoff, an Earthjustice attorney
who represented the conservation groups. “They said they weren't
going to take any action to protect the monk seal.”
In 1999, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team, concerned about
the declining colony at French Frigate Shoals, recommended closing
for the lobster fishery for three years to allow stocks to recover.
The council refused that request. Instead, it set a lobster quota
of up to 200,000. The council emphatically stated that the lobster
had not been overfished. But in April 2000, NOAA Fisheries shut
lobster fishing down, and has not reopened it since. It noted a
lack of appreciable rebuilding despite significant reductions in
fishing. In December 2000, NOAA attributed the decline “to
some degree” to the lack of lobsters and starvation.
At the same time, a federal judge ruled the agency had failed to
fulfill its “rigorous” obligation to insure that lobster
fishing did not jeopardize the seals.
The lesson for fishery managers, says Achitoff, is that they “shouldn't
be authorizing a fishery to take food away from endangered species.”
In December 2000, almost a century after Roosevelt's visionary
protection measures, President Clinton designated the islands as
the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.
As Lingle wrote in her second letter to Evans, Hawaii's fishermen,
native cultural practitioners, and ordinary citizens helped designed
the reserve “in such a way to protect both jobs and the environment.”It
was one of the greatest outpourings of public participation and
support for a natural resource decision ever in Hawaii," said
Cha Smith, director of KAHEA, a grassroots organization based in
Honululu that's been at the forefront of advocating broad public
involvement on the issue.
One of those who helped design the reserve, Isaac Harp, a native
fishermen, said the group initially hoped to place management of
the area under the Department of the Interior, which has a better
conservation record than Commerce. But pressure from Hawaii's powerful
Democratic senator, Daniel Inouye, and others, put the reserve under
the jurisdiction of the Department of Commerce. Wespac has apparently
had a history of direct and swift access to Senator Inouye's office
whenever a federal bureaucrat gives them trouble.
“Our initial effort was to get national monument status under
the Department of Interior,” says Isaac Harp, a Native Hawaiian
fisherman who served on the State's Bottomfish Task Force. “But
Inouye opposed a monument. So they came up with an agreement to
make it a National Marine Sanctuary. In national monuments everything
is prohibited unless specifically allowed, Under a sanctuary everything
is allowed unless specifically prohibited.”
The Main Hawaiian Islands are among the most visited places on
earth. They are one of the few places left where it is easy to snorkel,
dive or swim to view the green sea turtles that migrated from their
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands breeding grounds, an important component
of Hawai`i's $800 million ocean recreation industry.
The distant and fragile Northwest Islands, identified by scientists
as the last large-scale coral reef wilderness remaining on the planet,
are home to unmatched biodiversity. Native Hawaiians call this vast
1,200 mile region a “pu`uhonua” — a place of refuge
and safety — for animals that can no longer be found in the
Main Islands. Sacred sites abound in the islands.
Conservationists say Clinton's mistake was to put the islands under
the Department of Commerce's National Ocean Service, which has allowed
bottom trawlers to damage National Marine Sanctuaries elsewhere.
The Department also houses Wespac.
So far, the Department of Commerce has failed to enforce the Executive
Orders, and bottom fishing has increased 17 percent, according to
Wespac. One of Wespac's new members, Sean Martin, was a lobster
fisherman in the Northwest Islands for 16 years before it was ordered
Martin said at a public hearing that the lobster fishery “is
one of the most tightly controlled and managed fisheries in the
country… It is unfortunate .. the President has chosen to
take regional management out of the region and have a resource managed
by those who for the most part have never been there.”
But Louis “Buzzy” Agard,, native Hawaiian fisherman,
a lobster processor and an original member of the Wespac council,
said the lobster fishermen have only themselves to blame for destroying
the fishery. “If you are a council member and have an interest
in lobster catches and boats, you shouldn't be voting to continue
when you have the scientists telling you it’s dangerous.”