Monday, October 22, 2018

Two Paths Forward for Ocean Protection

Dear people of the Marianas,

I am writing today to carry on from my letter last week. Sadly, for the last 10 years, NOAA Fisheries and the US Fish & Wildlife Service have not been able to live up to the expectations of our community. They have had the mandate to come to our islands and deliver conservation. They were supposed to hire staff and engage us with the management of the Mariana Trench, but to date, they have not. For the last decade, all we’ve gotten is waiting, waiting and more waiting. What are they waiting for? The CNMI is tired of waiting. We are ready already.

As I mentioned before, I think we must really concentrate ourselves on what to do now. We can be disappointed, but we cannot give up. For the benefit of our natural heritage and our children, we must make sure the next “monument-decade" is not a repeat of the last. The Friends of the Mariana Trench have been discussing this in our meetings this year and so far, we’ve come up with a couple of things.

In my last letter, I talked about some of the problems with the way the executive order is written. Most importantly, the executive order didn’t include NOAA Sanctuaries as the monument manager. This is important because I want you to understand that what we have is first “the monument that is” and then second, “the monument that could be”. There is the monument that we envision one day having (managed by NOAA Sanctuaries), but there is also the monument that exists today (managed by NOAA Fisheries and USFWS). It is my hope that we continue towards working towards the monument that we want and get the most out of the monument that we have. And hopefully one day we will have all the federal programs from NOAA Fisheries, NOAA Sanctuaries, and USFWS benefiting our community – as happens today in Hawaii, American Samoa, and the Florida Keys, and they didn’t have to wait 10 years.

The way we see it, there are two approaches we can take and see if we can get any movement. First, we want to keep pushing to get the management plan released. Second, we want to continue trying to work with our CNMI leadership to get them to reconfirm their support for the sanctuary program.

First, there is a missed opportunity between our local government and the federal government, which is the Mariana Trench Advisory Council (MTMAC). One way we can try to push for getting the management plan out is using the MTMAC. This council is made up of representatives from our local government and the federal government, and over the years representatives from Guam have even been invited to participate. It’s a place for us to come to the table to discuss our mutual interests and issues. Just like we use the Covenant 902 talks, we can encourage our leadership to use the MTMAC the same way. Our leadership could use the MTMAC to ask the federal government to push formal requests and responses. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think that the MTMAC has met in quite some time – like maybe as much as 3-4 years. If we had active, well informed and well-suited members – appointees without conflicts of interest – on the MTMAC, maybe the CNMI could enjoy the benefits that the National Wildlife Refuge has to offer. While these won’t be the same programs and benefits we would get with NOAA Sanctuaries, it would be a step forward. We’ve seen how working with the federal government in these types of councils helps us move forward. The CNMI government needs to try to make the MTMAC work to get us what we were promised. This is our first approach.

Our second approach is continuing to build towards being selected for the NOAA Sanctuary program. To achieve this, might mean that we have to wait for an administration change. In the meantime, we can show our interest and support by making ourselves visible to the NOAA Sanctuaries. We can continue to do projects, write letters, and talk to each other about marine conservation. The more we are active, the better the chance that we can get the monument we want. Every citizen who cares about our ocean and the future of our people and our culture should call on our leaders to bring the sanctuary program to our islands

These are a couple of things we’ve come up with and welcome your ideas for reaching our goals too. If you are interested in becoming more active and to help us more hands on, please email to

As always - si yu’use ma’ase, olomwaay, salmat po, thank you and God bless

Ignacio V. "Ike" Cabrera

I Akgag

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Mariana Trench: More Waiting

Dear people of the Marianas,

I have promised to keep you informed about the Mariana Trench MNM and here is the latest information I have recently learned. The nomination to the bring the sanctuary program to the CNMI is stalled. I think it’s important for the community to understand how important it is to have the NOAA Sanctuaries as our monument manager. The best way I can think of to share this with you is to give you the history. For some of you, I might be repeating myself, but for others, I hope that this would give you a better understanding.

Ten years ago, in October 2008, the Friends of the Mariana Trench wrote a letter to then President George W. Bush and asked him to designate a marine national monument. We specifically proposed, “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 CNMI.” I quote this from our original vision letter to Bush on October 15, 2008.

We made this “Vision Statement” for a proposal. It described our hopes and goals for management and enforcement, culture and tradition, conservation, education, research, and economic development. It is widely published on the web or if you haven’t already seen it, you can also contact me, and I will give you a copy. The letter was drafted through the effort of several members of our community and it took 3-4 weeks for us to complete it. We discussed a lot and worked hard to make sure that all voices were included.

10 years ago, when the monument was declared by Proclamation 8335, we celebrated and hoped that this was the beginning of our journey to achieve our vision. But, when we had the chance to read the details of the monument declaration, we immediately noticed that it didn’t follow our vision statement proposal. Our first concern was that the CNMI was not given “co-management” and the NOAA Sanctuaries office was not given management of the monument. Instead, NOAA Fisheries and US Fish & Wildlife Service were made the managers and the monument was to be managed “in consultation with” the CNMI. It was in 2009 that the Friends wrote to newly elected Delegate Sablan and asked him to help correct these issues. We knew the monument as it was declared would never result in the benefits we had all hoped for. We have been saying this for a decade now.

For the next 10 years, we spent our energy trying to convince the Obama Administration to bring the NOAA Sanctuary program to the CNMI. Then the same when the Trump Administration began. We have a paper trail documenting these communications and would be happy to share the letters. We first approached the federal government in 2009, and the NOAA Administrator told us no. We approached them again in 2010, and again they told us no. In 2013, Delegate Sablan approached the Administration. By now four years had passed and there hadn’t been any progress on the monument. They again said no, because the monument management plan was due out “next year.” That was five years ago. Then in 2016, Delegate Sablan and Governor Torres approached the Administration again; and this time they listened. The White House asked the delegate and the governor to submit an official nomination, and they in turn asked us to write one.

So, in December 2016, as the Chairman of the Friends of the Mariana Trench, we submitted a nomination for a Mariana Trench Marine National Sanctuary – something we’ve been working towards for more than a decade. The process to nominate a sanctuary is transparent and open and is outlined on the NOAA website ( NOAA Sanctuaries accepted our nomination in March 2017. The nomination is now on the inventory of possible sanctuaries (which can be viewed online). The next step is to begin a sanctuary process, a transparent and open process that engages the community on how they want ocean conservation to take place in our community. When this process begins, NOAA Sanctuaries has told us that they would open an office and hire local staff – something that after 10 long years USFWS and NOAA Fisheries have not done.

As we have said from the time of the original proposal, the vision of the Friends for the Mariana Trench monument is not possible without the partnership of NOAA Sanctuaries. The agencies assigned by the Proclamation 8335 in January 2009, NOAA Fisheries and National Wildlife Refuge, do not have the same mandate or mission to do the activities or set up a visitor’s center like NOAA Sanctuaries does. While the Friends have very good working relationships with both assigned agencies, it doesn’t matter how much we try, they don’t have the mandate or authority to help us get those things that we envisioned. This is why we continue to ask NOAA Sanctuaries to accept our nomination. Like many people in our community, including our lawmakers, we too want to see the vision come true.

However, despite our decade of advocacy, in June of this year the Trump Administration decided not to start the sanctuary process in our community. The reason given by NOAA Fisheries officials in Hawaii is that the monument management plan is coming “next year” – this is the same excuse they’ve used every year since 2013 and it blocks us from the sanctuary nomination going forward.

There are likely several reasons why the sanctuary process is not starting, but it really does not help that our local government sends the federal government mixed signals about our goal to protect our ocean. Governor Torres says he wants the federal spending of the sanctuary program, but then he stands next to Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke and says he wants to open our waters to industrial fishing boats – boats that would compete with our local fishermen.

So yet again, we find ourselves stuck. We are not going to achieve our vision of conservation with the current monument, but the federal government will not fix the monument because they say NOAA Fisheries and USFWS are going to publish a management plan “next year.” Yet, they haven’t done their job in 10 years, haven’t hired any local staff in 10 years, and the $1 million annual budget has been used to support operations in Honolulu for the last 10 years. This needs to change.

I will leave the story here for today but promise that I will give you more updates during the coming weeks. There are some things we need to think about and discuss and I look forward to your continued support. If you are interested in becoming more active and to help us more hands on, please email to

As always - si yu’use ma’ase, olomwaay, salmat po, thank you and God bless

Ignacio V. "Ike" Cabrera

I Akgag

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Mariana Trench Marine National Monument Photo Exhibit Opening

(Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands) –– The Friends of the Mariana Trench (FOMT) together with the Marianas Visitors Authority (MVA) and the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands (HANMI) are pleased to announce the opening of a photo exhibit featuring 32 photos from the Mariana Trench. The ribbon cutting officially opening the exhibit will be held at the Hyatt Regency Saipan at 10:00am on Friday, September 7, 2018.

“We are really excited to see this project come to life,” said FOMT Chairman Ignacio V. Cabrera. “Our goal with this exhibit is to give our community and tourists a way to interact with our monument and learn more about what we have there.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ship Okeanos Explorer conducted exploration missions of the Mariana Trench in 2016. ROV Deep Discoverer (a robot) made daily dives from 250 to 6,000 meters and provided live video feedback to scientists aboard the ship. The photos in this exhibit are still-captures from video footage obtained during those dives. Several possible new species were found during this mission.

"This is fantastic, and we applaud the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument for undertaking this initiative to bring the Monument to the CNMI community using the Okeanos Explorer information and images from the Marianas expedition," said Heidi Hirsh, Natural Resource Specialist with Marine National Monuments Program based in Hawaii.

The exhibit was coordinated by Laurie Peterka for the Friends of the Mariana Trench and funded by the Marianas Visitors Authority and the Northern Marianas Hotel Association. All images are courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas. Image printing and framing were donated by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Gloria Cavanaugh, HANMI Chairwoman, added “The HANMI is pleased to be involved in showcasing to our people and to our tourist the beauty of the CNMI. We tend to take advantage of the fact that we are surrounded by the deepest waters in the world. Without the Okeanos Explorer project, the beauty in our waters would never have been discovered. We are thankful to NOAA and the Pew Charitable Trusts for bringing these rare images for us and our guests to enjoy.”

The exhibit will move between HANMI member hotels for 24-months and be shared with community outreach partners on request. Inquiries can be directed to Laurie Peterka at

Friday, May 18, 2018

Study Shows Widespread Support of Marine Protected Areas in the Northern Mariana Islands

A scientist conducted research in the Northern Mariana Islands in 2017 and is sharing his results with the community. Danny Morris, who studied at the University of York, published a report titled “Public Perceptions of Marine Protected Areas in the Northern Mariana Islands”. In this new report, Morris presents data on voter opinions on Saipan regarding marine protected areas (MPAs) and the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. Ultimately, the hope is that this work will be able to inform decision makers on the best course for improved MPA management.

A video presentation of the work can be viewed on the Mariana Trench Facebook page:

Around the Northern Mariana Islands, there are eight MPAs. Five of these are small, coastal strict no-take areas and two are small, coastal limited-take where specific species cannot be extracted. In addition to these coastal protections is the Islands Unit of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, which protects the federal waters around the far Northern Islands of Asuncion, Maug, and Uracus.

To get a representative sample of opinions, Morris interviewed 253 people of all ages and backgrounds on the island. The survey took an average of 15 minutes and included open-ended and closed questions. The results of the survey showed that the people of the Northern Mariana Islands overwhelmingly supported MPAs and wanted more protected areas in their waters. When asked how much of the Mariana Islands ocean space should be protected, the average answer was 57 percent.

There were less positive responses when asked similar questions about the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, but they were still overwhelmingly positive. From these results, Morris deduced several steps that could be taken moving forward that could increase the understanding of the monument with the public. He suggested that the benefits and successes of the monument should be better communicated to ensure a well-informed public opinion. Morris also suggests that there should be better representation of the local people on the Advisory Council, which currently is only three people. Further, he recommends that CNMI obtain co-management with the US government and the completion of the long overdue management plan.

Marine protected areas have long been proven to be a powerful tool in effectively managing marine resources and ecosystems. They are the oldest form of fisheries management tool, and have existed in the Pacific for centuries. These survey results show that MPAs are also overwhelmingly supported by the community and the creation of new protected areas would be welcome.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Robot Workshop Organizers Thank Supporters and Participants

OpenROV Robotics Workshop, Mariana Trench
Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) –The Friends of the Mariana Trench would like to express sincerest thanks to everyone whose invaluable contribution lead to the success of the Marine Ecology via Remote Observation Workshop last month. 

“The Mariana Trench inspires the next generation of local explorers, engineers, and scientists.” said Laurie Peterka, Secretary for Friends of the Mariana Trench. “But the success of this workshop is owed to our sponsors and partners who provided resources which allowed our eager participants to show up every day to learn.”

Through the support and commitment from many in the community, the Marianas is now home of the largest fleet of underwater OpenROV research robots and some of the most qualified OpenROV operators in the world. The Mariana Trench Marine National Monument was directly responsible for this opportunity being made available to our community. Marine protected areas such as the monument create incentives for scientists to conduct research because they provide a baseline against areas that are unprotected.

OpenROV is short for open-source remotely operated vehicle and is a low-cost robotic underwater drone built with the goal of making underwater exploration, discovery, and education affordable and available to the masses. OpenROV is an open-source hardware project. By providing the list of the submarine parts and instructions on how to assemble them, the project aims to democratize underwater exploration.

The Friends of the Mariana Trench in partnership with Northern Marianas Trades Institute (NMTI) hosted the Marine Ecology via Remote Observation Workshop from April 14-22, led by Dr. Andrew Thaler and Dr. Stacy Baez. During the first week of the workshop eight facilitators learned how to build an underwater robot. These robots can be submerged in the ocean and contain a camera that can be used to observe the marine environment. Representatives from NMTI, Northern Marianas College, PSS (through Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance), CNMI Bureau of Environment and Coastal Quality (BECQ), Okeanos Marianas, Underwater World Guam, and University of Guam Marine Lab were selected as facilitators. After the facilitators were trained, they taught 18 local students how to build and operate the machines. Students were recruited from Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and Guam. Participants built six underwater robots. These robots were donated to the community and will now be in use across the CNMI and Guam.

The Friends would like to thank OpenROV for providing robot building kits. Special thanks to NMTI for workshop space, staff, and transportation assistance. Thanks to Seatouch-Saipan for providing access to its facility in front of the Fiesta Resort and Space, and the Fiesta Resort and Spa for their tremendous support. Okeanos Marianas provided transportation for field operations in the Saipan lagoon, and thanks to the crew who made the experience unforgettable for participants. Finally, thanks to the organizations, businesses, institutions of higher learning, and government agencies who provided facilitators to conduct the student workshop.

The workshop was made possible by a grant awarded to Dr. Thaler and Blackbeard Biologic through the NOAA Marine Educators Training Program. The Friends were selected to be the workshop’s logistical coordinator and facilitated Dr. Thaler with community outreach and participant selection as well as engaging local and community partners.