Cover Story

Throwing net in Saipan, where Wespac casts a long shadow.
Image: Christopher Pala

A tangle of political power and unchecked funding leaves marine life at risk
Comes with video


Cover image for Nov 11, 2009

Wespac / For years, Hawaii environmentalists have been complaining that the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which the New York Times editorial page has described as “notorious among environmental groups as a chronic enabler of reckless commercial fishing,” was illegally lobbying Hawaiian politicians to push its anti-conservation agenda and prevent the creation of any marine reserves in Hawaii. After much prodding, Congress’ Government Accountability Office undertook a six-month investigation that uncovered no evidence that the federally funded independent agency had violated the law. The agency also saw nothing wrong with its chairman being fined for violating rules promulgated by the council.

But the congressional investigators focused entirely on Wespac’s operations in Hawaii. They did not go to Saipan or Guam to check allegations that federal funds were used to buy the loyalty of politicians who then strenuously opposed former President George W. Bush’s proposal to turn the most remote and least-fished federal waters in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas into a Marine National Monument, an idea Wespac opposed just as it fought the designation of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The monuments ban commercial fishing but allow native subsistence fishing.

A month-long Honolulu Weekly examination of Wespac activities in Saipan, supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, found a pattern of untruthful grant applications, purporting to revive ancient fishing practices and pull native Chamorros out of poverty. Despite stunningly poor performances, some of grantees were rewarded with offers of more cash from Honolulu-based officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who administer the grants recommended by Wespac.

As a result of the strident insistence of most politicians in Saipan that the monument violated their rights, the White House was forced to reduce the reserve’s size by 84 percent.

The monument, as initially proposed by the Pew Global Ocean Legacy project, would have included the northernmost third of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. The area is far beyond the range of the tiny, artisanal fleet based in the main island, Saipan, and contains relatively few fish–not worth the expense of getting there, according to a dozen Saipan fishermen.

“Without Wespac, there would have been very little opposition, since the business community was in favor of the monument,” said Tina Sablan, a member of the Marianas House of Representatives, echoing a widely held view. “I was amazed that nothing was able to convince my colleagues that indigenous rights were never threatened [by the monument as originally proposed].”

“Wespac is taking advantage of an under-educated society to further their goals and I’m very upset about that,” adds Agnes McPhetres, an influential Chamorro who founded the Northern Marianas College.

“Wespac has been quietly buying off all these top officials and nobody seems to care,” said Ken Kramer, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official in Saipan.

Wespac is one of eight regional boards are charged with elaborating policy on what fish to catch, how, and in what quantities in U.S. waters. Its goal is to maximize the fishermen’s profits without depleting the stocks. While the boards employ scientists, the Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976, which created them, assumed that the people who knew the fisheries best were the fishers, not the scientists. The councils are dominated by fishers, who historically tend to ignore their own staff scientists, focus on short-term gains, deplete one stock of fish and move on to another. The act exempted them from conflict-of-interest rules that hold sway in the rest of the federal government.

Among the councils, Wespac stands out in several ways.

Its executive director, Kitty Simonds, a former congressional staffer, is “an exceptionally effective political player” and has had the job for over 30 years, so she has developed a nonpareil network of contacts in Washington, said Rick Gaffney, a former Wespac member, in a typical assessment.

“Kitty wouldn’t have such influence if (Senator Daniel) Inouye hadn’t always backed her up with political pressure and federal money,” added William Aila, a prominent Native Hawaiian fisherman and conservationist.

Wespac Chairman Sean Martin, whose term expires at the end of 2009, is also the president of the Hawaii Longline Association, which represents most of Hawaii’s blue-water commercial fishermen. Jim Cook, a former Wespac chairman, is his partner in the Western and Central Pacific’s biggest fishing-supply company, Pacific Ocean Producers, and in several fishing boats. They have been fined six times for illegal fishing. “Wespac is the only council where this is tolerated and it’s the most anti-conservation of all the councils, by far,” said Gaffney.

Across the water

In Saipan, Diego Benavente is one of many who has benefited from Wespac’s largesse. A former lieutenant governor, he was elected to the Marianas House in the fall of 2007. Arnold Palacios, the speaker of the House and himself a former Wespac member, appointed him chairman of the Committee on Federal and Foreign Relations, where Benavente shepherded three anti-monument resolutions last year.

Before his election, Benavente was president of the Saipan Fishermen’s Association when it received a $150,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration arranged by Wespac’s local coordinator, Jack Ogumoro. In 2004, the association proposed in its application to open a cooperative seafood store that would “mirror traditional fisheries practices of collective fishing, marketing and distribution” and “foster traditional community-based fishing practices.”

The application stated that it was “not surprising for SFA members to vie among themselves to sell catches late into the night or barely break even.” It stated that the association was “300-member strong.”

Benavente’s successor and the association’s current president, Gene Weaver, is the maintenance manager at the local courthouse. The vice-president, Tony Scragg, is an air conditioning equipment retailer. Both cheerfully averred in a series of interviews that the association actually groups fewer than two dozen sports fishermen who have other jobs and whose main activity is to host a series of yearly tournaments that receive tens of thousands of dollars in sponsorship from private and public sources. They scoffed at the idea that they might sell their catch.

As for the fishermen that supply Saipan with fresh fish, they are overwhelmingly Filipino immigrants, say the owners of all four of the island’s roadside fish stands. “The Chamorros rent their boats to the Filipinos, but they fish for themselves and their friends, they don’t sell their fish because they don’t need the money,” said Mimi Castro, a Filipina who owns and operates the largest stand.

The store opened with five employees on August 21, 2007, selling only a few hundred dollars’ worth of fish a day. Three weeks later, they had an emergency meeting: the store was losing money and there was only $2,000 left in the till. So they closed it the next day rather than invest any of their own money.

Where did the money go? According to the report to NOAA and to interviews with Weaver, Scragg and Richard Seman, an association member hired to run the store, they spent $72,788 on equipment, including $58,381 on high-end refrigeration equipment that was sold by Scragg and not put out for bids; $30,803 on rent and repairs of the store and $41,204 on salaries, including $19,014 for himself, said Seman.

Undeterred by the apparent mismanagement, Honolulu-based NOAA loan officer Dominique Horvath later wrote to Weaver, who succeeded Benavente as the association president. She suggested that they apply for another, matching, grant. “Since you have over $58,000 in equipment that remains federal property, this could constitute your match,” she wrote after traveling to Saipan and verifying that all the equipment was placed in a government warehouse. Scott Bloom, another NOAA loan officer, wrote in an e-mail, “We remain supportive of the continuation and reopening of the Coop and look forward to your success.”

Bloom declined comment. A NOAA spokeswoman, Wende Goo, also declined to comment on the loan, other than to say the agency “continues to work with the Saipan Fishermen’s Cooperative to promote and develop fishing communities in the CNMI.” Benavente refused to be interviewed.

Kramer, the former federal agriculture official, said Wespac was alone among federal agencies in Saipan in the abandon with which it distributed money. “Our cost-share grants actually require some kind of performance or tangible results,” he said. “Wespac just seems to be handing out money to its friends.”

From bad to worse

The store grant was a glittering success compared to the grant given to Valentin Taisakan, the Northern Islands Mayor, who continues to receive funding even though all but a handful of the residents of the small northern islands had moved to Saipan years ago. In a 2004 application for a $90,000 grant to set up a “remote island fishing station” in the largely deserted island of Alamagan, he asserted that providing them with fishing and refrigeration equipment would enable “Northern Islands indigenous residents to practice traditional fishing techniques” and would “benefit indigenous Northern Islands communities.”

The outcome is described in the final grant report, also obtained from NOAA. After the mayor received a seven-month extension, the equipment was taken by chartered ship to Alamagan island and lifted ashore by chartered helicopter. Its present whereabouts could not be confirmed. The grant was also used to organize a single trip to Alamagan for a group of Saipan fishers that yielded 297 pounds of reef fish and 98 pounds of lobster, the grant’s only tangible benefit. The island is still mostly uninhabited.

In June 2008, Taisakan, the Northern Islands Mayor, wrote to Bush urging him not to create a monument in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, arguing that to do so would deprive the Chamorros of precious resources.

Meanwhile, the Guam Cooperative Fishermen’s Association obtained a grant of $127,000 to buy a long-liner fishing boat to train Chamorros a project that largely failed as few Chamorros showed any interest. Its president, Manny Duenas, is a Wespac vice chair. Though the proposed monument was hundreds of miles from Guam and did not affect Guamanian fishing rights, he wrote a letter to Bush opposing it. “The taking of our marine resources may be construed as being no different than cattle rustling,” he said, and it would “serve as a springboard to ensure the cultural genocide of a people.”

Grants aren’t the only way Wespac ensures the enthusiastic loyalty of local politicians.

“Kitty Simonds,” wrote Graffney in an e-mail, “has mastered the fine art of stacking the Wespac council and its advisory panels with people who she can count on to return the many favors she bestows (travel, per diem, meals, grants) by supporting her objectives.” A current member, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed.

Out-of-office politicians and fishers like Duenas, when serving on Wespac’s council, receive $584 a day plus $150 per diem for participating in all-expenses-paid meetings for which little effort is required, according to Gaffney.

Palacios, the speaker of the commonwealth’s house of representatives and a former member of the Wespac council, wrote in a letter to Bush that the “loss of control over such a vast area of land and water is an assault on the traditions and culture of the islands.”

Ignacio Dela Cruz, a Wespac current member, admitted in a TV interview last year that no fishing was taking place in the proposed monument waters, but he still insisted that the monument as proposed “would effectively prevent our fishing industry from harvesting those marine resources.” He added that “if Pew could guarantee the CNMI government something like $200 million or $300 million a year in cash with no strings attached, then maybe, maybe the governor might entertain that idea.”

Members of Wespac’s advisory boards receive only the per diem. One is Ray Mafnas, the governor’s senior policy adviser. “Pew tried to steal our islands, and we stopped them,” he said in an interview. “They’re trying to build their reputation at the expense of the Pacific Islanders.” Over a drink in one of the big resorts in Garapan, he added, “Wespac is respectful because a lot of indigenous people serve on the council and advisory panels.”

His boss, Gov. Benigno Fitial, wrote a letter to Bush decrying the monument’s “severe environmental restrictions.” He declined to be interviewed.

Back in Hawaii

“It’s a good thing NOAA kept records of those grants,” said Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, “because in Hawaii, when Wespac spends money on its friends or lobbies legislators, it doesn’t keep any records.”

The Conservation Council sued Wespac under the Freedom of Information Act for failing to provide basic budget, grant and contract information. As a result of its investigation, the Government Accountability Office asked Wespac to significantly increase its record-keeping.

Asked why the GAO team did not travel to Saipan, David Maurer, Director of the GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Team, wrote in an e-mail, “The scope of our work as requested by the Congress was targeted at a series of specific allegations against the council at the time. NOAA grants to Guam, Saipan or Samoa were not part of those allegations or part of our review, so we did not travel there.”