After getting positive feedback from members of Governor Fitial's administration and other locals, the Pew Environmental Group sent this letter:
The Honorable Benigno Repeki Fitial
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Caller Box 10007, Capital Hill
Saipan, MP 96950
Dear Governor Fitial,
I work in Juneau, Alaska for the Pew Environment Group on a project called Ocean Legacy. Although you and I have not yet had the opportunity to meet, Angelo Villagomez and I had coffee on August 16, 2007 to discuss our Ocean Legacy idea with your Senior Policy Advisor, Ramon Mafnas and Secretary Ignacio Dela Cruz. Representative Cinta M. Kaipat helped set up and also participated in this meeting. I have been in contact with Mr. Villagomez and Ms. Kaipat concerning our idea since January 2007.
As the leader of an island nation, you are well aware that the world’s oceans face a difficult future for a number of reasons including pollution, overfishing and climate change. Worldwide, many of the most valuable fisheries and ecosystems have been degraded with little hope of improvement or reversal in the near term. Foreign fishing fleets are scouring the globe to find and exploit the last outposts of healthy fish populations. Clearly, humankind has not fully valued our marine environment nor offered protection to the cultural, biological and geological resources of the world’s great seascapes as we have done on land. With few exceptions, there are no Grand Canyon National Parks of the sea. This is a tragedy because ours is likely the last generation with an opportunity to protect important remnants of this rich oceanic heritage.
The Pew Environment Group is an international non-profit committed to working with communities around the globe to educate the public and policy makers about the causes, consequences and possible solutions to environmental problems. One of the areas on which we focus is ameliorating the loss of the world’s great marine ecosystems.
Ocean Legacy is an initiative of the Pew Environment Group in collaboration with the Oak Foundation, the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation and the Robertson Foundation. It is an outgrowth of our work in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands which led to the creation of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The goal of the project to is to identify suitable large marine ecosystems and work with local governments to see if a handful of these “parks of the sea” can be protected for future generations.
To initiate the Ocean Legacy work, we commissioned an exhaustive look at marine systems worldwide to identify high-value cultural, biological and geological features worthy of protection. We were particularly interested in relatively healthy ocean ecosystems where the long-term economic and cultural benefits of protection would outweigh the value of potential short-term extractive uses. We also needed to find political jurisdictions with a capacity and a history of professional management and enforcement.
To date, we identified only four areas of the world that meet these criteria: Australia’s Coral Sea, New Zealand’s Kermadec Trench, the British Indian Ocean Territory of the Chagos Islands, and the Exclusive Economic Zone around the northernmost three of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Several features attracted our interest in this region of the Northern Mariana Islands. First, it sits along the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on the globe and demonstrably one of the wonders of the natural world. Second, there has to date been only a minor amount of legal fishing in the area; it is healthy and relatively free from pollution and other direct human impacts. Third, this area is important enough that the residents of the Mariana Islands have already recognized the special nature of the three northern islands and designated them as nature reserves in the Commonwealth Constitution. Fourth, we understand from discussions with a number of individuals in Saipan that local use of the area is limited and intermittent. Fifth, we understand that it is a dream for all Chamorros and Carolinians to someday visit the northern waters and there is local interest in protecting them for future generations as part of your cultural heritage.
As I know you are aware, we have modeled our thinking on the recent designation of the northwest Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) as a Marine National Monument - essentially a National Park in the sea. Protection of the NWHI was widely supported by Native Hawaiians, business leaders, the Governor and community leaders from across the political spectrum. Hawaiians recognized the unique nature of the NWHI and the region’s importance to the culture and history of Hawai’i. Ultimately there was widespread understanding that extractive uses were less important than restoring, protecting and maintaining a part of Hawaii’s marine legacy for future generations.
As a consequence of the Monument designation, the State of Hawai’i received an additional bonus. Although state jurisdiction legally extends only to three miles from the islands of the NWHI, the Monument designation expressly provides for the state to be a co-manager throughout the monument effectively extending the area of state authority by almost 20 times, well into what were formerly exclusively federal waters. Furthermore, the state previously had little capacity and few resources to manage the remote waters of the NWHI but under the Monument agreement, an opportunity now exists for the state to receive additional federal support as co-manager.
To be clear, our concept of a monument surrounding the constitutionally protected CNMI Nature Reserve is a private initiative. We will be successful only if the local residents and their elected leaders are supportive. We also need the support of the federal government. Ultimately it is the governments that are capable of protecting and providing research, monitoring and enforcement for these icons of the sea.
The rules by which monuments are created and managed are not fixed. The NW Hawaiian Islands model suited the circumstances and interests of the Governor and people of Hawai’i. If a Marine Monument were to be designated in the CNMI the resource management undoubtedly would differ to reflect local wishes.
The restrictions adopted for the NW Hawaiian Islands were put in place largely at the request of state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Native Hawaiian elders who honor and revere the NW Hawaiian Islands and wanted access restricted. It was not something that was imposed by the federal government. As part of that agreement, a working group of 15 Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners was established to help Monument staff review and approve access and fishing permits.
The NWHI currently has a small bottomfish fishery of eight vessels. Under the monument designation, those boats have five additional years to fish (until June 15, 2011) before commercial fishing in the area is ended. In addition, subsistence fishing is allowed in the Monument by Native Hawaiians. Lately, this opportunity has only been exercised once or twice a year, mostly by traveling in traditional canoes. The 200 mile distance from the nearest inhabited islands, Kauai, makes greater use of the area difficult just as it does for the northern islands which are over 300 miles from Saipan.
The economic opportunities created through designation of a large Marianas Trench Marine Monument are real. As the principle federal agency involved, the National Marine Sanctuary Program would undertake a management plan in conjunction with the CNMI government. Every monument/sanctuary that the Sanctuary Program manages has a visitor center which, in the case of the Mariana Islands could potentially include information on the region’s biology, volcanism and features of the world’s deepest trench. It could offer a dramatic and informative new visitor venue for Saipan in additional to providing educational programs for residents.
The Sanctuary Program also promotes, research, monitoring and enforcement within its monuments. This would require the chartering of local vessels and/or the acquisition of new vessels capable of traveling more than 300 miles to the northern islands. In Hawai’i they are looking at acquiring a plane to help in the management of the monument. All of this requires staff, for example the NW Hawaiian Islands monument now has about 40 full-time employees, most of whom are local including several Native Hawaiians.
Finally, Hawai’i received widespread publicity and recognition during and after the creation of the National Monument. Some of that press is still appearing. This one action established Hawai’i as a leader in ocean protection and a leader in Pacific conservation. A monument within CNMI waters could become the second largest protected area in the world, effectively putting CNMI on the map globally. Given its distance from Saipan, a new CNMI monument would be unlikely to attract a large numbers of on-site visitors but its designation would be a magnet for attracting high end “adventure” tourists. For example this spring, a new tourism operation is opening up in the NW Hawaiian Islands with regular charter flights to Midway Island. This is a direct result of the attention, publicity and increased public interest surrounding the designation of the new National Monument. International attention on a large undersea park would focus welcome attention on CNMI, the kind of attention that attracts independent tourists now being sought by the ecotourism industry. These are the kind of visitors who may not have noticed CNMI to date but would notice that one of the 14 U.S. marine “parks” was located there.
I have visited your beautiful islands three times this year to talk with people and determine local interest in the idea of a creating a “national park of the sea” in the northern islands. After our initial discussions with Senior Policy Advisor Ramond Mafnas and Secretary Dela Cruz, we decided it was important to spend more time assessing local interest in the concept and resolving any concerns before we took your time discussing this opportunity.
While there remain many questions about the concept, which we are happy to address, the reaction of many community members with whom we have spoken about this idea has been generally favorable. Angelo and I look forward to continuing this dialog and would be pleased to brief you at your convenience. We believe that a fair look at the facts and consideration of the potential economic benefits for Saipan and the Commonwealth will continue to generate broad support locally.
We look forward to talking with you and providing you with any information you might need.
Director – Global Ocean Legacy
cc: The Honorable Cinta Kaipat
Ray Mafnas, Senior Policy Advisor to the Governor
Dr. Ignacio Dela Cruz, Secretary, Department of Lands and Natural Resources
John Joyner, Director, Coastal Resources Management
Frank Rabauliman, Director, Division of Environmental Quality
Sylvan Igisomar, Director, Division of Fish and Wildlife