Grand Food Banks
Seven years after the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands became the world’s first oceanic no-fishing marine reserve, Hawaii’s example is being followed by countries ranging from Great Britain to Chile, giving hope that the huge areas they are protecting will become invaluable food banks as the world’s oceans are inexorably fished out and the global catch continues its 30-year-old decline.
The creation in June 2006 of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, followed in 2010 by Britain’s Chagos Marine Protected Area in the Indian Ocean and the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve off Australia, brought the global no-fishing acreage from 150,000 square miles in 2005 to 730,000 square miles today. Five other giant areas under consideration could bring the total to a whopping 1.7 million square miles — half the size of the United States — within three years, says Jay Nelson, the director of Pew’s Ocean Legacy program, who has been campaigning for most of them.
“These giant reserves are a real game-changer,” said Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia. “Fishing fleets have enormously grown and they’re now going after fish stocks in areas and at depths that they never reached before,” explained Pauly, the world’s most influential fisheries scientist. “Those areas had served as refuges for a lot of fish. Now that they’re almost gone, there’s an urgent need to replace them with big, man-made protected areas.”
Ecology vs Commerce
But creating the first giant reserve was anything but easy. It took nearly a decade for two presidents and countless environmentalists to overcome the opposition of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye and of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Marine Fisheries Service, funded by the Senate Commerce Committee on which Inouye was chairman or ranking Democrat for decades.
On the surface, the only stake was a tiny Honolulu fishing fleet of eight vessels employing some 20 people — part-time. In reality, protagonists said, it was a clash of starkly contrasting visions of the ocean. For some, the ocean is there to provide jobs and food. For others, it must be urgently rescued from the depredations of fishers before it’s left largely lifeless.
Former President Bill Clinton’s Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, started the process. He told this writer in 2006 that the strong resistance put up by Inouye and NOAA was never really about saving that handful of jobs. “They were afraid that this is the beginning of a slippery slope,” he said, “leading the American public to understand that our oceans are in serious trouble from overfishing, and that having started in one place, we will expand our vision to stronger regulation of the entire ocean.”
And so it came to pass.
Inception: the gem
The battle started when William Yancey Brown, who is mostly remembered here as the former director of the Bishop Museum who got the Forbes collection back, showed up for work in 1997 on his first day as Babbitt’s science advisor. “Bill, I want you to figure out what we can do for the oceans,” Brown quoted Babbitt as telling him. A former board chairman of the Ocean Conservancy, Brown had a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Hawaii (thesis on the sooty terns of Manana Island) and a Harvard law degree.
“So,” Brown reminisced on a recent afternoon in Washington, where he now lives, “I looked around and I found that there were plenty of marine reserves off the mainland, but there was nothing to protect coral reefs in our overseas territories. Eventually, I handed him a list of four places.”
Three were uninhabited U.S possessions: Navassa Island near Haiti, in the Caribbean; Palmyra and nearby Kingman Reef, south of Hawaii, and the prize: the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which Babbitt called “the most important coral reef complex in American waters that needed protection.”
The first three were U.S. possessions that only required the signature of the secretary of the interior to become no-take refuges, so Brown moved on them first. In 1999, the Navassa National Wildlife Refuge was created, banning all fishing and exploitation within 12 nautical miles of the island. “That seems tiny today, but back then it was the biggest no-take oceanic reserve in America,” Brown recalled.
The Pacific islands proved more difficult from the start, because the Hawaiian congressional delegation, led by Inouye, was against any extra protection for any of the islands, even if Honolulu-based long-line boats rarely ventured into their waters.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which President Teddy Roosevelt designated the Hawaiian Islands Reservation in 1909, were not as rich in tuna or reef fish as equatorial waters further south. Many were damaged when they were turned into Navy bases during World War II. But since then, much of the marine life had recovered, largely because of their isolation. They were rich in sharks, groupers, snappers and other large and tasty predators that have been fished out of most of the world’s reefs. Only the monk seals, sought for their oil-yielding fat and their pelts, had failed to recover from a near-wipeout in the mid-19th century.
The lobsters were another matter. In 1983, the fisheries service had allowed 15 Honolulu fishers, mostly refitted long-liners, to start catching them off the Northwestern islands with traps. The first year, they brought in 2 million and reported tossing overboard another 640,000 undersized or egg-laden ones. A study later found almost all were eaten by predators before they could hit the bottom and hide. By 1994, the catch had fallen to 38,000 lobsters, of which 64 percent were undersized.
Also in the 1980s, NOAA allowed the Honolulu fleet to catch slow-growing bottom-fish like onaga and opakapaka there. A 2004 Ocean Conservancy study found the population of the seven targeted species had fallen by half in 15 years on average, with opakapaka, also known as pink snapper, down by 84 percent.
Brown, in Washington, saw that fishing in the islands needed to be stopped before further damage was done. With congressional approval required to create new no-take areas off a state, he and Babbitt concluded that the fastest path to protect the islands was the National Monument designation. This required only Clinton’s signature.
Sen. Inouye, Fisherman friend
But when Babbitt approached Inouye in 2000 about it, Babbitt said Inouye wrote back, in essence, “Don’t you dare.” Inouye then went on to have a law approved by the Congress that urged the president to turn the islands into a sanctuary, a designation that only after a long and cumbersome process could have any effect on fishing.
“The president couldn’t really go against the expressed wish of the Congress when that wish was expressed by a very senior senator in the president’s own party,” Brown said.
Still, two days before the end of the Clinton Administration, in 2001, Babbitt designated Palmyra and Kingman Reef as National Refuges.
James Connaughton, George W. Bush’s chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, picked up where the Clinton administration left off and secured his boss’ support to protect the islands. But opposition by NOAA and Inouye bogged down the sanctuary process, stymying the efforts of Kahea, the Hawaii Audubon Society and Environmental Defense.
In 2005, Jay Nelson, who had retired from Pew as the marine program officer (Pew at the time was primarily a funder, not the actor it is today), was brought back to try to achieve what Brown had not: protecting the Northwestern islands. He approached two lawyers working for Connaughton and asked them what they needed for President Bush to make the islands a national monument. “The endorsement of the governor and the aquiescence of the congressional delegation,” Nelson said they replied. He hired four people, canvassed prominent Hawaiians and in seven months got them to persuade Lingle to change her previous, anti-monument stance. But still, after five years, NOAA missed deadline after deadline to release even a draft management plan for the islands, let alone a real plan.
On June 14, 2006, Connaughton met with Bush and told him there would be a signing ceremony the next day for the draft plan. Bush expressed frustration, Connaughton said in an interview, and Bush there and then decided to end the sanctuary process, saying that 100 public meetings on the issue and 52,000 public comments, most supportive, were enough. The lawyers worked through the night to polish a monument designation and at the scheduled ceremony, Bush signed it. The designation ended the bottomfish fishery within five years (it lasted four). “It was exciting,” Connaughton recalled. At 118,147 square miles, it was by far the biggest completely protected marine area in the world.
The name Papahanaumokuakea, chosen by Uncle Buzzy Agard and Aunty Pua Kanahele, is a blend of Papahanaumoku, a mother figure symbolizing the earth, and Wakea, a father figure representing the sky.
(In 2010, thanks to a congressional appropriation and Inouye’s intervention, the holders of the 15 lobster licenses, which had been given out free, each received $288,000 in taxpayer money for the loss caused to them by the 2006 monument declaration, even though the fishery was closed since 2000 by a federal court. The eight bottom fishers shared $2.2 million. For details, see HW Oct 13-19, “Paid Not to Fish.”)
“It’s precisely because federal fisheries management in Hawaii was so abysmal that the marine national monument was necessary,” Nelson said.
He went on to propose to Connaughton that Bush also turn into national monuments a string of other islands in the Pacific along with the pristine, remote and therefore rarely fished northernmost islands of the Northern Mariana Islands, just south of Japan. There, it was the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which advises NOAA on fisheries policy in the Pacific with Inouye’s support, that fought Pew and the White House. Influential politicians in Saipan with lucrative ties to Wespac denounced the move. Arnold Palacios, the speaker of the commonwealth’s House of Representatives and a former member of the Wespac council, wrote 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.” Despite the support of the local chamber of commerce, the no-take part of the Marianas Trench National Monument was 84 percent smaller than originally envisioned. Bush created it 11 days before leaving office in January 2009, and it has had little effect on blue-water fisheries (See HW, “Top Predator,” Nov 11-17 2009).
And now, the rest of the world
A few weeks later, Nelson, a slight man with an unassuming manner, walked into the white, Italianate building across from Big Ben in London that houses the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Britain’s equivalent of the State Department. Even since Pew had helped pave the way for Bush to create Papahanaumokuakea monument in 2006, he had regularly visited this office to suggest to that Britain could create an even bigger reserve around the Chagos Islands, which have half of the pristine reefs in the Indian Ocean. They are uninhabited except for Diego Garcia, home to a major U.S. military base. Their Exclusive Economic Zone, extending 200 nautical miles from shore, was fished by pure-seiners and long-liners who took out up to 23,000 tons a year, mostly tuna. Scientists said that if the entire EEZ was turned into a reserve, it could create the first refuge big enough for the populations of tuna, sharks, marlin and countless other species to return to their natural levels. And at 208,500 square miles, it would be the biggest no-fishing zone in the world, nearly twice the size of the Papahanaumokuakea.
But so far, Nelson had elicited only mild interest — no action.
Hawaii’s sea change
“When I walked into that office in 2009 and I saw the blue Papahanaumokuakea management plan on the table, I knew something had changed,” Nelson said. The Head of Overseas Territories, Colin Roberts, was more friendly and relaxed, now that he understood that Papahanaumokuakea was not a one-off. He told Nelson he had already started the process of gathering information required to turn the Chagos EEZ into a no-take zone. “For the first time, he wanted to talk specifics,” Nelson said.
The Foreign Office, staffed by diplomats, has no institutional expertise in conservation, so it convened a meeting of scientists to discuss the merits of the proposal. And on April 1, 2010, at 5:00 pm, on the last day that the Gordon Brown administration could act before it was replaced by the David Cameron government, Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced the closure of all fishing in the whole Chagos EEZ. “It was the first giant reserve to close a major fishery and the first one to comprise an entire EEZ,” Nelson said.
In Australia, which in 2005 created what was briefly the biggest true marine reserve in the world by making a third of the Great Barrier Reef no-take, a plan to rezone the country’s whole coastline had bogged down until the Hawaii and Chagos reserves were announced. Last year, the government ended fishing in half of the iconic and biologically rich Coral Sea, or 194,209, square miles, making it the biggest no-take zone in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Pew Environment Group is campaigning to ban fishing in the largely un-fished waters around a series of other remote islands: Pitcairn (UK), Easter Island (Chile) and the Kermadec Islands (NZ) in the Pacific, and Bermuda and South Georgia in the Atlantic. Most could be closed within three years. “There’s no question that it wouldn’t have happened without Papahanaumokuakea,” Nelson said.