Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sanctuary Goals: Protecting the Marianas Trench

The Friends of the Marianas Trench in the CNMI Legislature in 2008.
On Sunday night I submitted a 20-page nomination to begin the designation process for a proposed Marianas Trench Marine National Sanctuary.

Governor Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres and US Delegate Gregorio Camacho “Kilili” Sablan wrote to President Barack Obama in September 2016 to request that a sanctuary process begin in the Northern Mariana Islands for the marine areas of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. Several island leaders have joined this call, along with 1,500 of our citizens. The Friends of the Marianas Trench took this request one step further and asked that during the sanctuary process, which will take several years and involve scoping and plenty of opportunity for public comment, the community have the chance to explore options for protecting additional resources as we initially identified in 2008, but also those discovered in the years since.

Conservation results in pre-mature aging.  This is what I looked like when I started work to protect the Marianas Trench.  That's my old college buddy and former San Vicente Elementary teacher, Diana.
The effort to protect the Marianas Trench is one month short of a decade-long journey for me, and of course, many others. Today I received notice that the nomination was accepted and is now under review by NOAA. What a great way to start the weekend!

A few of you will read this blog and wonder why do we even care? What do we hope to achieve?

The goals section of the nomination speaks to the hopes and dreams we have for the Marianas Trench. It's pasted below and consists of six sections related to Management and Enforcement, Culture and Tradition, Conservation, Education, Research and Exploration, and Economic Development.

The Mightiest Pen in the CNMI
This statement of goals strongly mirrors the Friends of the Marianas Trench Vision Statement from 2008, with just a few updates. The first draft of that vision statement was drafted by Ruth Tighe, who passed away a few years ago. As I drafted the nomination I thought of Ruth, and I'm thinking of her now. I like to think that she's looking down on us, proud and content that her words are still being used to make the world a better place.
Management and Enforcement, by which we mean not only management of the sanctuary once it is declared, but also the process of defining how the sanctuary would function once it is established.

The Friends of the Marianas Trench envision that the federal and local government officials will co-manage the sanctuary. We would like the Friends to be involved in this co-management; we are sure that there are innovative means for our members’ support and contribution. For example, we hope that the initial Advisory Committee for the sanctuary includes members of the Friends and other conservation-minded people who actively supported the designation of the sanctuary. Additionally, critical to these efforts are the necessary resources to enforce any protections. With this regard, we request assistance with the necessary equipment, training and support to properly enforce the designated area. We envision having boats for enforcement and patrol. In order to better manage and enforce the protections of the monument, we suggest that all vessels entering the sanctuary area should be required to carry a VMS and AIS tracking system and adopt strict invasive species prevention measures.

We believe that a permitting system would be appropriate for limiting and managing the types of vessels entering the sanctuary. This would help with enforcement because vessels entering without a permit would be suspected of illegal activities, and authorities would be alerted to their presence with the use of VMS, AIS, and other technologies. Research vessels and cultural practitioners will appreciate this system as it will maintain the integrity of the resource. Historically the Islands Unit of the monument has been rarely visited, but there is evidence of the occasional illegal foreign fishing vessel entering the area. The permitting system should be based on Saipan, and support for local people to apply for a permit, especially those related to cultural activities, should be provided using federal resources.

Culture and Tradition, by which we mean the lifestyle, practices and beliefs of the Chamorro and Carolinian peoples that have been handed down from generation to generation.

The Friends believe, first of all, that the Chamorro and Carolinian cultures and tradition must be treated with respect, and taken into full account in decisions that are made about the management and use of the sanctuary. We should take into consideration the precepts of our indigenous culture and tradition when deciding issues like, for example, sustenance fishing, canoe travel and other similar matters.

Our culture is also one of inclusion, and we hope to create a sanctuary advisory council that represents all people of the Northern Mariana Islands, beyond typical local government agency interest. In addition to the resource agencies, we believe that the Historic Preservation Office, Office of Indigenous Affairs, Office of Carolinian Affairs, and Office of Women’s Affairs should have a seat at the table. Additionally, we would like to see participation from conservation groups, fishing clubs, student groups, teacher unions, indigenous organizations, and businesses.

Conservation, by which we mean the protection and preservation of the marine ecosystems and their interrelationship with land ecosystems and indigenous cultures; and their continued presence and existence in the future.

The proposed sanctuary contains some of the world’s most unique habitats and unusual features, such as chemosynthetic and photosynthetic organisms living side-by-side, mud volcanoes, vent communities, and other natural wonders. One of these is volcanic coral reefs, which occur nowhere else in Micronesia. The coral reefs that exist there are flourishing and vibrant, and need protection to help guard our planet from the impacts of global warming and potentially act as a source of corals for other marine areas.

The Friends acknowledge that people of the CNMI and the world have historically relied on the oceans for food and other resources. We believe that the need for continued availability of our precious, limited marine resources does not conflict with conservation. We believe that creating the sanctuary will help increase the ocean’s abundance by contributing to the survival and recovery of depleted marine resources and biodiversity.

Education, by which we mean both formal and informal education, for students as well as the public, for residents as well as the rest of the world, in all relevant media formats, produced both commercially and non-commercially.

The Friends believe that funding should be made available to enable oceanography to be taught in schools, at the college and through lectures and programs for the public, and to ensure that pertinent education materials will be readily available, that careers in the marine and geological science will be encouraged, that opportunities for field trips for students, teachers, the general public and tourist should be made available.

We envision educational visitors’ centers, including a centrally-located facility funded under the auspices of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries Program that would be open to everyone that would contain displays of various sorts, offer education and outreach opportunities, and could have related items for sale. The island of Rota is particularly well-suited for an education facility. There is support from the local government and local elected leaders to manage and upkeep a facility for both local students and visitors.

The Friends believe that the visitors’ center would bring benefits not only to the local economy by attracting tourists, but also to the people of the CNMI, as it would showcase information about marine geology in general, about the sanctuary in particular, and about the CNMI and its indigenous history and culture; It would present, in a variety of formats, the results of marine research done in the area and relevant research done elsewhere; it would regularly present programs open to the public on matters related to marine life in general as well as marine life specific to the area, thus allowing the people of the CNMI, tourists, and other visitors, to benefit from the establishment of the sanctuary.

We believe that there are opportunities to collaborate with other institutions, including the Naval Historical Society, Smithsonian, Underwater World of Guam, and National Park Service to provide the community with exhibits and materials on exploration, research, history, and science.

It is our dream that this sanctuary will inspire and contribute to the first indigenous students receiving their Ph.D. in marine biology, deep-sea geology, or other related sciences.

There are 10,000 public school students attending 20 schools on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota and 1,000 students enrolled at the Northern Marianas College. There are also about a dozen private schools. We envision all of these students having at least an annual interaction with the programs of the proposed sanctuary. In addition to students visiting sanctuary facilities, we envision sanctuary staff conducting outreach directly to the schools.

Visitor arrivals surpassed 500,000 in fiscal year 2016, and the number of tourists is expected to grow. Visitors come mainly from Korean, China, and Japan, but also Russia, Guam, and the mainland United States.

Research and Exploration, by which we mean the process of studying marine life, geology and other sciences, and of data generation, as well as the products of such activity generated by scientists, teachers, or students.

The Friends believe the researchers and scientists who base their work on the sanctuary and its environs should be required to obtain permission prior to undertaking research in the area, and should share the information they garner with the local community through presentations at the Visitors’ Center, or in other forms and forums. They should make accommodations to take along local students and teachers on research trips, so that local students are encouraged to become scientist and researchers.

Researchers from Scripps Research Institute and Brigham Young University-Hawaii visit the Northern Mariana Islands each year and could collaborate with ONMS on research projects. Additionally, the Northern Marianas College has close ties with the University of Guam and University of Hawaii and there are a number of opportunities that could be explored, from classes taught locally on the sanctuary, to internships, and summer research projects for local students as well as visiting researchers.

NOAA Fisheries data shows that CNMI has the highest unique biomass in the US flag territories with endemism rivaling the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The habitat diversity of the region combined with proximity to the Coral Triangle results in high levels of biodiversity and endemism. For example, the 2016 expedition ‘Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas’ by the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer found hundreds of new species. The possibilities for exploration and new discoveries are staggering.

Economic Development, by which we mean assistance in improving the economy toward enabling the CNMI to become self-sufficient. The CNMI, being small islands with limited assets, will always be dependent to some extent on outside forces and influences, but certainly more is needed and can be done to increase independence.

There are many great economic benefits that we anticipate from the sanctuary. We envision a surge in the media attention from your designation of the Marianas Trench National Marine Sanctuary, which will attract more visitors to the CNMI. The CNMI relies heavily on tourism as its number one industry, and help to this sector of economy—whether from traditional or high-end visitors—will have a significant beneficial impact. The sanctuary will likely attract scientists and other researchers, who will contribute financially while visiting or living here. The operation of the visitors’ center and administration of the sanctuary will create jobs, both directly and indirectly.

The contribution that a sanctuary would make to the CNMI economy is in stark contrast to the present situation, where the only economic benefit that presently occurs from this significant resource is limited to illegal foreign fishing activities. Obviously, this current economic activity has little benefit to the CNMI.

The Friends believe that the federal funding provided for the management of the sanctuary and the associated increase in visitor spending are much more suited to the CNMI’s image in the world and more productive of tangible benefits when compared to fishing. The increased flow of traffic from Saipan, Tinian, and Rota to the sanctuary would also benefit the people of the CNMI in that it would make more feasible resettlement of the Northern Islands and provide transportation and communication with the “lower” Northern Islands.

More than 500,000 tourists visit the CNMI each year. The main source of arrivals come from Korea (43%), China (34%), and Japan (15%). The remaining visitors come from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Russia, Philippines, Guam, and the mainland United States. Even a small increase in visitor spending in regards to a sanctuary would have a significant impact on the CNMI economy.

There are numerous potential local partners in the private sector, federal and local government, and community that could support implementation of the goals of the sanctuary. In addition to the Friends of the Marianas Trench, the Mariana Islands Nature Alliance is very active in the community and has experience developing multimedia and social marketing materials to educate the community on the importance of marine protected areas. The Marianas Visitors Authority and the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, who both supported designation of the monument would partner with ONMS to conduct outreach to visitors. Also, as previously noted, there are education institutions such as the Northern Marians College and CNMI Public School System that can form a bridge to connect to local students.
Call us stubborn or call us consistent, but we are determined to bring conservation and the benefits of protection to our shores.

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