Saturday, July 08, 2017

Kirimati Island Fishing

I just got back from a week in Kirimati Island in the Line Islands, Kiribati.  The Line Islands are where the science that changed our understanding of coral reefs and healthy shark populations took place over the last 20 years and it was an incredible opportunity to be able to visit them.

I'm not a big fisherman, but that's the main attraction for people who visit Kirimati.  I borrowed a friend's pole and line and caught the two trevally in the tweet above.  One of the Kiribati members of parliament also took us out on his boat for a few hours.

This little grouper is the smallest fish we caught.  Groupers are voracious predators.  Compare this little guy to the size of the lure I was using.  They're the easiest fish in the world to catch because they bite anything that swims by them.

The trevally are a little harder to catch.  They are tough little fish and fun to reel in.  When I was a kid the blue trevally were my second favorite fish to eat.  The blue trevally at Kirimati were bigger than any I've ever seen in my life.

Most of the fishermen who travel to Kirimati go there for the bonefish fishing.  I saw a lot of them in the water, but I didn't catch any.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Unstoppable Sylvia Earle

I met Dr. Earle back in 2015 when I worked on shark conservation.  She was a Shark Stanley Ambassador.
Working in ocean conservation has been pretty tough the last few months.  I won't get into the specifics, but if you pay attention to these sorts of things then you know what I'm talking about.

But then there are weeks where you get to hang out with Dr. Sylvia Earle in Chile.  Two weeks ago I had the chance to spend four days with Sylvia during a workshop on ocean conservation.  It's incredible to spend time (and share some wine or maybe a pisco sour or two) with someone as accomplished as Dr. Earle.

She says things like, "when I started diving in 1953..."

"The first time I lived underwater..."

"When I headed NOAA..."

And she says them as if they are perfectly normal.  After all, she's lived underwater 10 times!

Dr. Earle is the real deal and she is tireless and unstoppable.

I had the good fortune to be selected to take her diving while we were in Easter Island, and took this epic photo of her flipping backwards off the boat into the water.

She's 81, folks.  I just love this photo.  It makes me think of those photos of President George H.W. Bush jumping out of airplanes.  80 is the new 25.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Villagomez Family Tree

Friar Eric Forbes wrote a blog a few years ago about the roots of the Villagomez family on Guam, which extends to the founding of the Villagomez family on Saipan.  Sometime before 1727, a Spanish sailor named Cristobal Villagomez gave up his life at sea, married a local girl on Guam, and fathered five children. 

More than 150 years later, around the time the Spanish started to allow Chamorros to move back to Saipan, Joaquin Salas Villagomez (my great-great-grandfather) moved from Guam to Saipan, married Rita Diaz Castro, and had five kids.  One of the five is my great-grandfather Rafael "Laffet" Castro Villagomez.  Laffet had nine kids, including my grandfather Ignacio Pangelinan Villagomez.  The Laffets today are one of the largest clans on Saipan; our most prominent member is Governor Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres.

The other four Villagomez clans on Saipan -- Kiyu (Villagomez), Nando (Benavente), Marcilliano (Castro), and Pai (Santos) -- are also very large families.  If you look at the family tree we drew for our 1992 reunion (above), you'll see most of the Chamorro last names on Saipan.  That explains how nearly everyone on the island is my relative.

Ana and Ignacio Villagomez

I didn't expect so much traffic from this post!  Hello, Villagomez Family!

There have been lots of requests on Facebook on reprinting the family reunion shirts.  We could do that, but delivering them would be a logistical nightmare.  Instead, I went ahead and designed a few shirts on  You can follow the link and see if you like any of the shirts or products.  If you'd rather make your own shirt, here's the graphic I used.  I took a photo of the shirt and cleaned it up a little using photoshop.

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.