Thursday, December 14, 2017

Another Year of Mariana Trench Advocacy

I did not eat this fish
It has been another busy year advocating for ocean protections.  I have had the good fortune to land in a place where I am able to work with brilliant people in amazing places all across the globe to advance government policy to protect local economies, unique island cultures, and fragile ocean ecosystems by creating marine protected areas.  At one time in my life I was on the front lines of where policy intersects with communities, but these days I help out from the sidelines while others get the glory (and do the heavy lifting).  I've spent most of the last two years researching, writing, and guiding others to organize their communities to affect change.  It's a good place to be.

The oceanscape I care about most is my home in the Mariana Islands.  I miss living there.  The opportunity cost of leaving the islands and moving into this career is that I am unable to experience the minutiae and the day to day experiences of island conservation work.  These days I fly in, suffer jet lag, and experience real conservation through the words and stories of the scientists, lawmakers, and community leaders who are doing it in their islands.

Regrettably, I am ambivalent about the progress with the Mariana Trench this year.  On the one hand, there has been an incredible amount of community work probably not seen since the year before the designation of the monument, but on the other, the federal agencies charged with managing the monument have wasted another year.  The monument management plan is still not available for public review and no staff have been hired on Saipan, Tinian, or Rota.  It is exciting that there is now staff on Guam, however, and there is hope that monument associated activities will commence in the Northern Marianas in 2018 (I believe I said the same thing at the end of 2016, so we'll see).  

In years past I would have documented the progress of the monument on the pages of this blog, but these days I am a lazy blogger (follow me on Twitter, I'm more active there).  So take a deep breath, this is going to be a long post.  I've got some catching up to do.

Despite promises every year since 2013 that the monument management plan would be released "next year," it was not.  There is an endless list of reasons for why the federal agencies haven't accomplished this; this year's justification was the Trump monument review.  Sad.

But there has been progress in other areas.  With the backing of some of the world's most prominent deep ocean scientists, the Mariana Trench was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was successfully placed on the tentative list, which is awesome.  But, the Trump Administration is pulling the United States out of UNESCO and I'm not sure how that will affect the nomination.

We also made progress in bringing the NOAA Office of Marine National Sanctuaries into the fold of Mariana Trench Monument management.  If you've been paying attention, you'll remember that our original vision from 2008 was "that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through its National Marine Sanctuaries Program, be the federal agency that administers, co-manages, and enforces the monument, along with the (Commonwealth)."

James Cameron, one of only three people to ever dive to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, joined Governor Torres and Delegate Sablan in asking President Obama for a national marine sanctuary.  As the Obama Administration came to a close Ike Cabrera was optimistic that things were all coming together and that the sanctuary process would start before the new administration began.  Ike turned out to be overly optimistic.  The sanctuary process has yet to begin, but the sanctuary nomination was accepted in March and was placed on the inventory of possible sanctuaries, the final step before beginning the sanctuary process.

Chairman Ike
Ike wrote an editorial thanking everyone who was involved at the tail end of this decade long process and explained the next steps:
The Friends of the Mariana Trench wish to thank Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan for their leadership in helping our community to secure a successful nomination for the proposed Mariana Trench Marine National Sanctuary.

We also wish to thank our other elected leaders and the community for rallying behind the effort to bring the NOAA Sanctuary program to the Northern Mariana Islands. In particular, our elected leaders from Rota and the late Northern Islands mayor Jerome Aldan deserve special recognition as their early support helped bring this nomination to the attention of federal officials.

The nomination is now on the list of “Inventory of Successful Nominations.” There are a total of six nominations on the inventory list, including other areas in New York, Alaska, Pennsylvania, and California. We have been working on this for more than 10 years now and it is exciting to see developments taking place.

It is important to remember that with the nomination, the process to designate the sanctuary is now only beginning. We recognize that we did not speak to every citizen, elected official, or leader, but we did speak with many. If we have not spoken to you yet, we hope that in the coming months and years we will be able to have conversations with you about the importance of protecting our ocean heritage for future generations.

We look forward to the start of the sanctuary designation process in the near future. This is a four-step process which begins with (1) scoping, then (2) a sanctuary proposal is developed based on public input, followed by (3) public review of the proposal, leading towardsa (4) final decision on whether or not to designate an area as a national marine sanctuary. Working together, we look forward to making the ocean great again.
Kilili, for his part, singled out Ike for his hard work:
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration listed the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument as a potential National Marine Sanctuary, a significant step toward the goal of sanctuary status that Governor Torres and I requested of then-President Obama last September. We both view Sanctuary status as a way to fulfill the promises of economic, environmental, and cultural benefit made when the Monument was created by President George Bush.

Friends of the Marianas Trench, led by Mr. Ignacio Cabrera, followed up in November by filing a nomination petition backed by Commonwealth legislators, community leaders, and the 1,500 residents of the Marianas and Guam who signed a petition in favor of sanctuary designation. With this strong backing, Governor Torres and I will urge NOAA and the new Trump administration to begin the process of public consideration, set out in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, that can now lead to making the Monument a National Marine Sanctuary.
After the nomination was accepted, I wrote a blog describing my frustrations with the monument.  I described the last ten years of monument advocacy and community concerns regarding the military, use of the Antiquities Act, and the perceived lack of benefits promised by the Bush Administration.  That was the last time I wrote about the monument until now.

In April, President Trump directed the Department of Interior and Department of Commerce to conduct reviews of 27 large monuments created in the last 20 years, including the Mariana Trench.  Ike wrote a series of nine letters between July and December to inform the community on the progress of the review and how it affects the Mariana Trench.  The nine letters are each pasted below.  In the end, Ike was successful and no recommendations have been made to overturn or change the Mariana Trench Monument.  Sadly, changes to others monuments were recommended and have already been implemented.  That story is now unfolding. 

But I'll let Ike's words do the explaining for our role in the Trump monument review.
We Demand Co-Management
This is the first in a series of letters about the Trump administration efforts to overturn marine monuments in the Pacific, particularly the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. I wish to begin on a positive note, and suggest an area where everyone in the community can agree.

Ten years ago, when we were advocating for the creation of the monument, the Friends of the Mariana Trench, based on advice we received from The Pew Charitable Trusts, asked the Bush administration to grant the Northern Mariana Islands government co-management over the entire monument.

Our vision statement, which we published in this newspaper in October 2008 and posted online on numerous blogs, outlined how we wanted the federal and territorial government to be equal partners in managing the federal resources. Unfortunately, the current situation does not give the Northern Mariana Islands co-management; rather, decisions are made “in consultation with” our local government.

Now that control of submerged lands has been granted to the Northern Mariana Islands government around the three islands within the Islands Unit, it would make sense to manage the entire monument area—both the federal and the territorial resources, including the islands—as one management area, with both governments acting as equal partners.

Granting co-management and protecting the entire geographic ecosystem will fulfill the intent of the NMI Constitution, which says the islands of Asuncion, Maug, and Uracus “shall be maintained as uninhabited and used only for the preservation and protection of natural resources, including but not limited to bird, wildlife, and plant species.” (Article XIV, Section 2)

I encourage Gov. Torres and Delegate Sablan to reach out to President Trump and demand that our government be granted co-management of the monument. This is the best way to ensure that our people have a seat at the table.

There's No Fishing North of Pagan
This is the second in a series of letters about the Trump administration efforts to overturn marine monuments in the Pacific, particularly the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. In this letter I will address local fishing.

It is important to discuss the current level of fishing issue right up front. When it comes to the area under discussion, the waters surrounding Asuncion, Maug, and Uracus, we need to keep in mind that there is next to no fishing taking place in these waters. Have you ever taken a boat to Guam? Maug is more than twice as far away as Guam.

Fishing surveys done on Saipan have found that none of the local fish markets have sold fish caught north of Pagan in the last several years. And Pagan is only about midway to Maug. So we are talking about an area where very few people have ever visited, and where even fewer people have fished. The area is simply not an area where people on Saipan are getting their protein. It is too far away and the price of gas is too high. There are many more closer fishing spots, including Farallon de Medinila, Anatahan, Zealandia Bank, and the several of the other Northern Islands south of the monument.

The real important part to remember here is that, although there is no local fishing in the monument today or in previous years, the monument proclamation allows for sustenance, recreational, and traditional indigenous fishing as long as it is “managed as a sustainable activity consistent with other applicable law and after due consideration with respect to traditional indigenous fishing.”

All of the boats on Saipan that are seaworthy enough to make it the hundreds of miles to the monument are actually allowed to fish there as long as they follow the fishing rules that are there to ensure sustainability. No fishermen have been barred from fishing there since the day the monument was declared.

Since no fisherman has been harmed, why would we want to throw away the potential benefits from the monument? While there is well-deserved skepticism and frustration with the lack of progress from our federal partners, it makes no sense to throw the baby out with the bathwater because things are moving slowly.

If our governor has such a close working relationship with the Trump administration, he should be using this influence to open the federal coffers to fund a management plan, enforcement strategies, and building a visitors center, not open up the monument to commercial fishermen to compete with local fishermen.

We Don't Have Commercial Fishing on Saipan
This is the third in a series of letters about the Trump administration efforts to overturn marine monuments in the Pacific, particularly the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. In this letter I will address commercial fishing.

The monument prohibits commercial fishing in the Islands Unit, the area of federal waters around the islands of Asuncion, Maug, and Uracus. There is some fishing allowed in the monument, namely sustenance, recreational, and traditional indigenous fishing. The Friends of the Mariana Trench asked for this cultural fishing in our vision statement, which we published in this newspaper in October 2008 and posted online on numerous blogs.

In many Pacific Islands countries, commercial fishing plays an important part in the economy. Some countries rely on this activity for most of their government revenue. The Northern Mariana Islands, however, does not have any commercial fishing. Zero. We do not have any long liners or purse seiners, and we do not export any of our fish to other countries.

We do have a very active artisanal fishery that services our local markets, but the size and scale of this fishery is tiny compared to what exists in other places, including Hawaii and the Marshall Islands. And most of that fishery is centered around Saipan, not the far northern islands.

So why is there no commercial fishing on Saipan? It’s not for a lack of trying. There have been several attempts to start commercial fishing here, often heavily subsidized by the federal government. The outcome of the most recent attempt sits out in the middle of the Saipan lagoon, lying on its side since Typhoon Soudelor.

There are a number of reasons that commercial fishing has not taken off here. One is that we don’t have the high value fish in our waters that the Japanese are willing to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on. Our fuel prices are also higher than in many other places. A third thing is our immigration laws. The longline fishery in Honolulu only exists because they bend U.S. immigration laws to allow slave-like labor on their boats. This situation was exposed last year in a report from the Associated Press and caused a lot of controversy for Hawaii and damaged their reputation. We don’t need that on our islands. We already have enough problems as it is.

So just to recap, the monument prohibits commercial fishing only, but there is no commercial fishing in the Northern Mariana Islands. Therefore, while some of the economic benefits promised by White House Council on Environmental Quality chair James Connaughton and the Bush administration have not come to fruition yet, neither has there been any loss of economic activity because we do not have a fishing industry.

50-Miles Exclusion Zone
This is the fourth in a series of letters about the Trump administration efforts to overturn marine monuments in the Pacific, particularly the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. In this letter I will continue to discuss commercial fishing.

The pace of developing the monument and approving the management plan has been frustrating for everyone on this island, particularly those of us who advocated for the monument. When people point fingers at us for the failures of the federal government to do their job, we feel more anger and resentment than anyone else.

The monument has potential, though. There are many examples of places where monuments are working, where communities are being engaged, cultures are being nourished, and ecosystems are being protected. I would like to see that happen here, and have thought for more than 10 years that the best way to do this is with the NOAA Office of Marine National Sanctuaries. We laid the reasons why in our vision statement, which we published in this newspaper in October 2008 and posted online on numerous blogs.

If the monument is overturned, the potential for making the ocean great again goes away and we are left with nothing. At the same time, even if Trump were to overturn the monument, commercial fishing would not be allowed in the Islands Unit because NOAA rules do not allow commercial longline vessels within 50 miles from shore. Purse seines are banned out to 200 miles.

Overturning the monument is a lose-lose. We would lose any potential benefits from the monument, and hopefully a sanctuary. And fishermen wouldn’t suddenly have a new place to fish, because fishing would still be banned!

What we’d rather see is for Gov. Torres to use his influence with President Trump to demand that the promises made by the Bush administration are delivered immediately. A great way to start would be to begin the sanctuary process, so that our community could begin engaging on how best to manage the federal marine resources surrounding our islands.

Do You Want To Protect The Ocean?
Thank you for taking the time to read all of my letters this week. And thank you for all your comments, both online and in person. I hope I have made a strong argument that the best use of our far northern resources is conservation, as our founding fathers laid out in our Constitution. I don’t want to see our waters opened up to industrial fishing. Do you?

I end this series of letters by asking the readers of this paper whether or not they think we should protect the ocean? Do you? Should we protect the ocean, or should we not protect our ocean?

I think the best use of our natural resources is for our local people, and I hope that we never open up our waters to foreign fishermen. Those fish are important to our people and our culture, and we need them for ourselves.

I also recognize that we live under a system defined by the U.S. Constitution and the Covenant. Our islands are surrounded by ocean, and some of that ocean is managed by our local government, while most of it is managed by the federal government.

Which brings us back to the original question: Do you want to protect the ocean? If the answer is yes, we need to do so under the system in which we are governed today.

Just because you think the local government should control 200 miles of ocean does not mean that it does. So if you think the ocean currently under federal management should be protected, we need to figure out how to protect it under the federal system.

This is an ongoing conversation for our people and I look forward to continuing it for the benefit of our kids and grandkids.

Others Also Protect Their Seas
The Northern Marianas are not the only islands in the Pacific to have a large marine protected area that restricts industrial fishing. Last week the Cook Islands parliament formally established its Morae Moana, which includes an area that restricts all industrial fishing around all of their islands out to 50 miles.

One of the first countries to protect large areas of ocean was Kiribati, home to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. The 400,000 square kilometer marine protected area is one of the largest in the world and protects about 11% of Kiribati’s waters.

Palau is another country that protects large swaths of its ocean. Two years ago President Tommy Remengesau created the 500,000 square kilometer Palau Marine Sanctuary, which puts 80% of their Exclusive Economic Zone off-limits to fishing. The remaining 20% is open for local fishermen. The law also bans exports of fish, so all fish that are in their waters must be used locally.

The largest protected area in the Pacific is the 1.5 million square kilometer Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. It is the first protected area in the world to merge modern and cultural conservation practices.

Other places in the Pacific considering these large scale marine protected areas include New Zealand around the Kermadec Islands, Australia’s Coral Sea, Easter Island, the Austral Islands and Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, and New Caledonia.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recommends protecting 30% of the ocean. The 1,300 government agency and non-government organizations that make up the IUCN made the recommendation based on the best available science with a goal to “reverse existing adverse impacts, increase resilience to climate change, and sustain long-term ocean health.”

Our Mariana Trench Monument Islands Unit is about 42,000 square kilometers and covers about 5% of the US EEZ around our islands. I hope that our people can learn about the other islands protecting the ocean, and that we can come to understand how important this is.

A Sanctuary is Best Option for Mariana Trench Marine National Monument
Some of you may be wondering what is happening with the Presidential Executive Order instructing the Secretary of Interior to review a selection of national monuments. I have been keeping up on the information and summarize the current status for you below.

Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke has completed his review of 21 national monuments and submitted his draft recommendations to the President at the end of last week. Several monuments were removed from his list before the end of the comment periods and he indicated in public interviews that he recommended changing the boundaries for a handful of sites. Zinke indicated his intention to reduce the size of a couple of land-based monuments, but has yet to be specific about any others. There is no indication than any decisions have actually been made.

As many of you likely know, President Trump tasked Zinke with reviewing national monuments created after 1996 up through the end of the Obama administration. The review consisted of 1) direct fact finding, 2) allowing for public comments, and 3) reviewing existing policies. The deadline for Zinke’s report to the President was Aug. 24, 2017.

A quick read of Zinke’s report summary to the President doesn’t provide any specific decisions or identify what changes will be made where. Instead, the summary discusses how information was collected along with general comments about public participation. According to a press release from the Department of Interior, the report includes considerations of more than 2.7 million public comments, countless meetings and listening sessions. Over 800,000 public comments on marine national monuments alone and 99 percent of these comments supported our marine treasures. Apparently, the actual report is currently in draft form and weeks away from being made final.

Reviewing the news coming out of the White House and the Department of Interior, press releases indicated that 90 percent overwhelmingly support U.S. monuments and for monument protections to remain as is. It was found that the only opponents seemed to be those connected with large-scale industry who want to exploit the resources.

While it’s great that President Trump isn’t likely to overturn our Mariana Trench Marine Monument, opening the area for any kind of extraction, especially industrial scale commercial fishing, is equally as bad. There are no direct benefits to the people of the Northern Marianas if this happens. Our local fishing resources will continue to decline. It will only get worse.

Another possibility is that Zinke’s report will sit with the president indefinitely. If this happens, then the draft management plan that we were promised six years ago, will be set back even further. Zinke and the president should release the management plan before any other decisions are made about the Mariana Trench MNM. Any decision made prior to the release of the management plan should be declared null and void given that one of the three criteria for review will clearly have not been met.

The Friends of the Trench Monument has been asking for a sanctuary from the beginning and we still stand by our original vision from 10 years ago. We didn’t get it from Bush or Obama and we hope we can get it from Trump. We strongly support and advocate that a sanctuary is best way forward for the people of the Northern Marianas.

No Changes for the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument
Some of you may have read the article that The Washington Post published early this week talking about Secretary Zinke’s report, which is still in draft but was leaked from the White House. The draft report discusses 10 monuments. Zinke appears to make recommendations 1) regarding the sizes of the land based sites and 2) about the activities for the Pacific Remote Islands Area and American Samoa. No mention was made about the marine monuments in Hawaii and the Marianas.

As things look now, it does not appear like President Trump will open our Mariana Trench Monument to industrial commercial fishing. Since most of our local people support marine conservation, this is a good thing. Of the three units of the MTMNM, only the Islands Unit protects the water column (the Trench and the Volcanic units only protect the seabed). The Islands Unit is only 4.3 percent of the total U.S. exclusive economic zone surrounding the CNMI. We should be continuing to look at ways to work with the federal government to increase the total protected waters in the spirit of local and traditional practices for the benefit our children and grandchildren.

While the Trump administration continues its discussion, I again call on Gov. Torres to ask the federal government for co-management of our Mariana Trench monument. The monument in Hawaii is co-managed by the state government and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The Chamorro and Carolinian people and our local government are deserving of equal treatment. Co-management is the best way we can ensure our voice is heard to protect ecological integrity and our cultural legacy.

We should be looking forward to getting President Trump’s review behind us, so they can move forward with publishing the long-delayed monument management plan, which we hope will result in seeing more of the $3 million annual NOAA MTMNM budget coming to the CNMI, instead of staying in Hawaii.

And for the record, I have no idea what John Gourley is talking about when he comments that the Friends of the Marianas are supposedly requesting for 50 percent of the entire Marianas EEZ. The FOM has only asked that NOAA Sanctuaries consider our nomination of the existing boundaries.

Still No Changes to the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument
Dear people of the Marianas: I have promised to keep you informed about the Mariana Trench Marine Monument and here is the latest concerning President Trump’s monuments review.

Back in April, President Trump ordered Interior Secretary Zinke to review 27 large monuments declared by American presidents the last 20 years, including the Mariana Trench Monument. During the review, more than 2 million comments were received from across the country. Of that number, 99.9 percent were in support of maintaining protections. The final recommendations of that report were just made public.

The secretary has ignored the vast majority of indigenous people, businesses, and conservationists that support protections and recommended shrinking four monuments and amending 10, including two monuments that were shrunk in Utah on Monday. This is a bit scary as it sets a precedent for how the United States manages its public lands and waters. An attack on one monument is an attack on all monuments. Native American groups are particularly upset and already five lawsuits have been filed against this decision. If these decisions are allowed to stand, future presidents will be able to shrink and grow monuments and the future of conservation could be very chaotic.

However, none of this will affect us in the Marianas immediately, because Secretary Zinke has not recommended any changes to the Mariana Trench Monument. This is because of the incredible amount of public outreach that was undertaken ahead of the declaration in 2009 and because of the high level of support for ocean and cultural protections we maintain on our islands.

This is not to say that there has not been frustration with the monument. The management plan was due in 2011 and is nearly seven years overdue. And we continue to believe that NOAA Sanctuary programs would best serve the people of the Marianas, particularly with their educational focus and the visitors center.

Now that the review is over, this is an excellent opportunity for us to hold the federal agencies accountable to seeing the management plan published for public review and comment. We should also keep pressing for approval of the sanctuary process.

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