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President Obama’s ocean legacy supports fishermen and sustainable seafood

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the string of uninhabited islands stretching 1,200 miles from Nihoa Island to Kure Atoll, have a bipartisan history of conservation dating back over a century.  Starting with Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, seven American presidents – four Democrats and three Republicans – have put in place protections for the region.  This spectacular expanse of islands and ocean is home to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, recently enlarged by President Barack Obama.  Today because of the President’s bold vision, Hawaii is home to the largest marine reserve in the world.

Papahanaumokuakea is a source of great pride for Hawaii.  The monument was the first marine area inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites for having global significance for both culture and biodiversity.  It also gives Native Hawaiians a direct role in how ocean resources are managed, and protects fragile ecosystems and threatened populations of sea life, which is why we question what compelled a congressman from landlocked Utah to make unsubstantiated claims about Papahanaumokuakea and the future of commercial fishing in Hawaii.

{mosads}The claim that marine monuments kill jobs and reduce fish catch is not supported by logic or scientific data.  Scientific studies have shown marine protected areas result in more and bigger fish for fishermen to catch, not less.  Furthermore, big, fat female fish, which thrive in marine reserves, produce exponentially more eggs and healthier, more viable eggs than small fish.   The positive effects of marine protected areas are enhanced when they are large, remote, old, enforced, and highly protected.  Papahanaumokuakea meets all of these criteria and is not only the biggest in the world, but also one of the strongest and best.

These tired arguments that conservation negatively affects fishermen were trotted out in 2014 when the Obama Administration used executive authority to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, first created by President George W. Bush using the Antiquities Act.  Data shows that the fleet did not suffer any losses with the expansion of that monument.  In fact, in 2015 the fleet had a record year because in part it was able to continue fishing in other areas until they reached their annual quota.  We suspect that two years from now, when data is available to show what affect the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea has on the fleet, that the bottom line of the Hawaii-based tuna and swordfish boats will be unchanged.

This is not to say that there are not threats to the Hawaii-based fishery, the industry just does not want to talk about these things because they are self-inflicted.  They would rather point fingers at conservationists who are demanding sustainability in the face of continued fish stock declines.

Overfishing is the biggest current threat to fishing jobs. We are not doing enough to address this problem.  The target species for the Hawaii longline fleet, bigeye tuna, is overfished and overfishing has been occurring for many years.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has assessed this species as vulnerable to extinction and the 2014 assessment for this species found the stock had declined to 16 per cent of its unfished size.  Regardless, fishing pressure for this species continues to increase. 

Despite marketing from PR firms hired to showcase the industry in a positive light, the Hawaii-based longline fleet has not been shown to be sustainable, and needs to clean up its act.  Alarm bells should have gone off in July when the fleet reached its quota for the year.  Instead, the fleet worked out a deal wherein they bought more quota from U.S. territories in the Pacific – driving yet more overfishing. 

Another threat to Hawaii’s tuna and swordfish fisheries are the deplorable conditions for foreign workers on the boats, recently described as “slave-like,” by the Associated Press.  The treatment of these workers is unjust and un-American.  These disgraceful conditions are perpetuated by boat owners who do not want to pay the minimum wage, so they jump through immigration loopholes to employ foreigners, many of them desperate, and are often indebted to the owners.  What will the owners do if they are forced to pay their workers a living wage?  Will they give everyone a raise and start hiring American citizens, or will they move the fleet to an island country where these conditions are allowed?  We assume it will be the latter, and when that happens it will not be the fault of the conservationists, but that of the fishing boat owners, who put personal profits first.

In Hawaii we love fish and we want to see our kids and our grandkids eating the fish we grew up eating.  This will not be possible if things do not change and if we do not start doing a better job of taking care of our ocean.  Barely three percent of the ocean is protected in marine reserves today; far short of the 30 percent recommended by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network composed of both government and civil society organizations.  Protecting the ocean today will ensure that fishermen have jobs tomorrow, and we hope that our President is not done protecting the ocean.  He still has several months in office in which to leave future generations an even larger legacy of ocean stewardship.

Rick Gaffney was born and raised in Hawaii and has fished recreationally, for sport, as a charter captain and commercially, in the Main Hawaiian Islands, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and around the Pacific, for 60 years.  He has served on numerous fishery advisory bodies including the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, the Marine Protected Areas Federally Advisory Commission, the West Hawaii Fishery Council, the Western and Central Pacific Fishery Commission. State. Rep. Chris Lee is a Democratic member of the Hawaii House of Representatives for District 51, which includes the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is located. Lee chairs the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection (EEP) and serves on the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs (OMH). Lee was born in raised in Kailua, Hawaii.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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