Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Addressing Monumental Frustrations

The Mariana Trench jellyfish discovered in 2016
During the process to nominate the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument as a National Marine Sanctuary overlay, three issues repeatedly popped up during discussions I had with the community. Some community members disapproved of the Antiquities Act to protect federal resources, many found frustration with the lack of promised benefits accruing, and there was concern and confusion about how the military interacted with the monument. There were of course other questions that arose, but these three issues came up time and time again.

I discussed these three issues at great length with many people. I learned a lot from these discussions, both in terms of information that was shared with me, and questions that were asked that I then helped find the answers to. I think it’s important that these discussions continue, and want to put some of these ideas down on paper so that others can read about it and make up their own mind.

But first, I’d like to provide some history on the monument for context. To paraphrase Maui from the Disney film Moana, we can only know where we are by knowing where we’ve been. That will help us see where we are going.

It has been more than 10 years since we began advocating for the protection of the waters surrounding some of the Northern Islands in the Marianas. It has been a lengthy journey with steps and missteps made along the way. In the beginning we advocated for protecting the waters far north of all of the inhabited islands, while now much of the focus is on the Mariana Trench.

Original proposal
Early on our goal was to extend conservation status to the waters surrounding Asuncion, Maug, and Uracus. These islands are designated as refuges in the Commonwealth Constitution, but the protections stop at the shoreline.

Our first proposal, which was outlined in the Friends of the Mariana Trench October 2008 Vision Statement, asked President George W. Bush to protect, “the marine ecosystems surrounding the three northernmost islands of Uracus, Maug, and Asuncion as a marine national monument, in accordance with the Antiquities Act of 1906” and “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).” The eastern corner of our proposed area included a large portion of the Mariana Trench, so I proposed the name Mariana Trench Marine National Monument.

Uncle Ben hugs W.
The Mariana Trench Monument was declared by President George W. Bush on January 6, 2009 at a ceremony in Washington, DC. Commonwealth Governor Benigno R. Fitial attended the signing and gave the president a big hug after he signed the monument declaration.

The Commonwealth community took issue with parts of the monument declaration at the time of the signing. Island leader Agnes McPhetres told the Associated Press, “We still applaud President Bush for taking the first step.” It was clear that much more work needed to be done.

The monument contains 3 units: Islands, Trench, and Volcanic
The monument that was created was not the monument that the Friends of the Mariana Trench had asked for. Where they had asked for the marine protected area to encompass the full U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding the islands of Asuncion, Maug, and Uracus (~115,000 nm2), the marine protections of what was declared as the “Islands Unit” of the monument extended only about 50 miles from shore (~12,000 nm2), rather than the full 200 miles. This made the area of marine protection about one tenth the size of that proposed.

The monument also created a “Volcanic Unit,” made up of the submerged lands surrounding 21 submerged volcanoes, and a “Trench Unit,” consisting of the submerged lands of the Mariana Trench inside the U.S. EEZ. Neither the Volcanic nor Trench Units included the marine resources above the submerged lands. Management of the fisheries inside the Islands Unit was granted to NOAA Fisheries within the Department of Commerce, while management of the submerged lands in the Volcanic and Trench Unit were handed to the Department of Interior. Interior decided to delegate management authority to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which promptly declared the Volcanic Unit and Trench Unit as the Mariana Arc of Fire National Wildlife Refuge and the Mariana Trench National Wildlife Refuge, respectively. Additionally, the Mariana Trench National Wildlife Refuge extends to the federal submerged lands closer to Guam, which complicated the politics of the monument by possibly including an additional U.S. territory.

The Friends of the Monument identified these issues and proposed solutions in a letter to Delegate Gregorio Camacho Kilili Sablan dated April 7, 2009. The recommendations included (1) transferring management to the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, (2) extending the borders of the Islands Unit to the original proposal, (3) extending commercial and recreational fishing restrictions to the Mariana Trench National Wildlife Refuge, while allowing traditional indigenous fishing as outlined in the Vision Statement, and (4) transferring submerged lands from 0-3 miles from the federal government to the Commonwealth.

In the eight years since the monument was declared, two of these recommendations have been considered. The submerged lands were transferred and finalized in December 2016, and the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument was placed on the inventory of possible national marine sanctuaries in March 2017. Hopefully the sanctuary process will begin this year and a sanctuary overlay will be finalized in the near future.

While there has been some progress, there have also been significant frustrations and disappointments with the monument. After 8 years, neither a monument management plan nor a scientific research plan has been put forward for public review. In addition, neither NOAA Fisheries nor USFWS has yet to hire a single person in the Northern Mariana Islands. A visitors center has not been built, nor is one planned.

It was in this atmosphere that the Friends of the Mariana Trench joined with Governor Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres and Delegate Sablan to attempt to bring the NOAA Sanctuary program to the Northern Mariana Islands. This brings us back to the purpose of this discussion. During the process to nominate the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument for a Sanctuary overlay, three issues repeatedly popped up from the community. They are discussed below.

Use of the Antiquities Act
There is a century long tradition of U.S. presidents using the Antiquities Act to declare “objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.” In addition to protecting individual buildings and geographic features, right from the start presidents have used this presidential power to protect entire ecosystems. For example, the first president to use the Antiquities Act, President Theodore Roosevelt, declared the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. And sometimes these objects sit atop submerged lands (i.e. the “marine” monuments). For example, President John F. Kennedy declared the Buck Island Reef National Monument in 1961. 16 presidents have designated a total of 157 national monuments in the last 111 years. As a result, the Antiquities Act is today an important bipartisan tool used by both political parties to protect our national heritage.

There was no federal takeover of Commonwealth resources through the use of the Antiquities Act. Ronald Reagan declared the US Exclusive Economic Zone in 1985, putting the submerged lands from 3-200 miles under federal management. Prior to this declaration those submerged lands were considered international waters. The Commonwealth wished to control the EEZ, but the U.S. Supreme Court determined these were federal resources. The U.S. Congress granted the Commonwealth the submerged lands from 0-3 in 2016. I discussed these issues in greater detail in a blog.

The use of the Antiquities Act was criticized in the creation of the monument, but does not factor into the nomination of the Mariana Trench Marine National Sanctuary. The rules for creating new sanctuaries are outlined in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and are separate from the Antiquities Act.

The monument declaration includes a section pertaining to the military. There is confusion in the community as to what this means, but reading the proclamation has proved useful to those who want to understand the issue. There have been rumors of a “military exemption” in the proclamation, but the words “exempt” or “exemption” are not to be found. You can read the proclamation here.

The section on the military reads, “The prohibitions required by this proclamation shall not apply to activities and exercises of the Armed Forces (including those carried out by the United States Coast Guard).” The important phrase is “prohibitions required by this proclamation.” The proclamation is focused mainly on commercial fishing, which is something the military does not do. This language frees the military from having to apply for any permits when the monument management plan is eventually implemented. It was included mostly at the insistence of the Coast Guard, which needs the freedom to conduct rescues at sea without having to apply for a permit first. The language does not exempt the military from other restrictions outside of the proclamation, including the National Environmental Policy Act and other requirements.

Lack of Promised Benefits
The Friends of the Monument have believed for a decade that the NOAA Sanctuary program would benefit the people of the Commonwealth because of their focus on education and research. These programs, along with the construction of visitors centers, are at the core mission of the Sanctuary program. This is not the main focus for NOAA Fisheries, which is to promote fishing, or USFWS, which is enforcement.

For this reason, the Friends advocated for NOAA Sanctuaries to be the manager in the lead up to the monument declaration, and continued to do so during the 8 years of the Obama Administration. The economic study that was done in 2008 made the incorrect assumption that the monument would be large and managed by NOAA Sanctuaries, thus the predictions of economic benefits were also incorrect.

Many people in the community rightfully have hard feelings in regards to what they felt were promises made during the campaign to designate the monument. It is not widely understood in the community that the promises made were in regards to the Sanctuary program managing the monument, when in fact USFWS and NOAA Fisheries are the managers. Additionally, USFWS and NOAA Fisheries have not helped the situation due to their lack of advancing the monument management plan, hiring local staff, or bringing their programs to the Commonwealth.

The nomination to designate the Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary 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 to bring the sanctuary program to the Commonwealth 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. And our community deserves to have the time to discuss these issues and others that will arise as the sanctuary process moves forward. The sanctuary process is designed to allow this to happen.

I’m looking forward to the start of the sanctuary designation process in the near future. This is a four step process which begins with (1) scoping by NOAA, then (2) a sanctuary proposal is developed based on public input, followed by (3) public review of the proposal, leading towards a (4) final decision on whether or not to designate an area as a national marine sanctuary.

When the sanctuary process begins hopefully we will begin to start to see some of the economic benefits that we’ve been discussing for the last decade. And hopefully we’ll also begin to start seeing some of those ecological benefits, which are also very important.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rapa Nui

Ahu Tongariki
I had a very short trip to Easter Island this week.  I traveled from Washington, DC to Houston to Panama to Santiago, Chile and finally to Easter Island.  It takes a similar amount of travel to get to Saipan, which surprised me.  For some reason I thought this island would be closer!  Still, as a Pacific Islander, it is very meaningful to be able to visit this island.  They are descended from the the same people who populated Micronesia and the Marianas, so the Rapa Nui are in effect my distant cousins.

Sadly, I was only there for a day, which is no where long enough to get to know a place or a people.  In the end I spent as much time traveling to and from Easter Island as I did actually on the island.  I hope I get to go back one day.  I posted a few more photos on Facebook, if you want to see them.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Inventory List

For the last 10 years I've been one of the advocates for bringing the NOAA Sanctuary program to the Northern Mariana Islands.  The archives of this blog catalogue most of that journey, including our two year attempt to use the Antiquities Act to protect the Mariana Trench, and the four times we petitioned the Obama Administration to create a national marine sanctuary in the Marianas.

We've had failures, and we've had success, and everything seems to take longer than it should, but that journey took a significant step forward last week when NOAA Sanctuaries accepted the nomination from the Friends of the Mariana Trench to designate a Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary and placed the nomination on the list of sanctuary inventory -- areas that have the criteria to be national marine sanctuaries and that are eligible to go through what is called a sanctuary process.

A lot of people in Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and Guam, not to mention Washington, DC and Hawaii, were involved in this accomplishment, and they all deserve to be recognized.  We also need to explain to the community what this means and what the steps moving forward will be.  The governor and the delegate issued a joint press release, and singled out Ike for recognition.  That's quite an accomplishment, and much deserved.

Discussing the Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary in December with some folks.  Also, we're eating chicken kelaguen in this photo.
Northern Mariana Islands Governor Ralph DLG Torres and U.S. Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) announced yesterday significant progress on their joint effort to have the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument declared a National Marine Sanctuary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has now placed the Monument on the national inventory for possible sanctuary designation.

Torres called the decision “an important step toward realizing the benefits promised to the people of the CNMI during the formation of the Marianas Trench National Monument.

“The federal government declared our unique marine resources a national treasure and we must pursue avenues for federal resources to ensure adequate conservation for future generations and the promised benefits for our people,” the governor added. “I thank Congressman Sablan for his collaboration on this effort and look forward to continuing to work alongside him to ensure that promises are fulfilled and our people realize tangible benefits from any future designation.”

Sablan said, “NOAA’s decision to list the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument as an area that can be considered for sanctuary status is a significant step toward the goal the governor and I articulated in our joint request to NOAA last year.

“I want to thank the governor for his willingness to work together in this way to realize the economic, environmental, and cultural potential of the Marianas Monument,” said Sablan.

“And I congratulate all of the other leaders and activists in our community for the success of their efforts to have the Monument placed on the sanctuary inventory by NOAA.”

Torres and Sablan began their effort with a joint letter to President Obama in September 2016, requesting initiation of the multi-year process to consider sanctuary designation for the Monument.

“Overlaying a Sanctuary designation to include the marine areas of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument would advance the goals of both the National Marine Sanctuary Act and the original objectives of the Monument proclamation,” they wrote. “It would also support the conservation values, practices, and aspirations of the people of the Marianas and our nation.”

This joint, bipartisan approach by the Marianas leaders helped spur broad community support for the idea of sanctuary designation. In December 2016, Friends of the Marianas Trench, led by Ignacio Cabrera, filed a petition with NOAA nominating the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument as a National Marine Sanctuary. The nomination package included letters, resolutions, and signatures of support from local legislators, mayors and 1,500 residents of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.

Placement on the NOAA inventory means that the agency has determined that the nomination successfully met numerous criteria, including ecological, historical, cultural and archaeological significance; economic uses; need for conservation and management of threatened resources; and broad-based community support.

Now that the nomination has been placed on the inventory, NOAA may consider it in the future for designation as a National Marine Sanctuary. Sanctuary designation is a lengthy process that is highly public and participatory. For more information on the sanctuary designation process go to www.nominate.noaa.gov.

Torres and Sablan have agreed to continue working together and to urge NOAA and the new Trump administration to keep the process of adding sanctuary status to the existing Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.