Thursday, December 11, 2008

Honolulu's weekly stories.

Legacy blues
Will Bush's big environmental push be thwarted by bureaucrats?
by Christopher Pala / 12-10-2008

President Bush is under strong criticism for using his last weeks in office to promote hard-to-overturn influential regulations that, far more than those of his predecessors, appear tailored to benefit favored industries. But another kind of 11th-hour effort has garnered much praise, including two editorials in the New York Times: his Blue Legacy project.

Following the success of his designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which will end fishing there by 2011, Bush asked his aides to find out whether other parts of U.S. territorial waters could usefully also be named national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The act gives the president unfettered authority to protect any place that has scientific or historical interest, and scientists say intact islands’ ecosystems constitute such objects.

After a lengthy selection process, the administration settled on 11 tiny, remote Pacific islands and has been grappling with the question of exactly how much water to protect. The first three miles off most of these islands are already protected–the question was whether to go to 12 miles, 50 miles–as in the Papahanaumokuakea–or the entire Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, which extends to 200 miles and is reserved for U.S.-flagged fishing boats. Scientists and environmentalists said banning commercial fishing in the whole EEZ would slow the decline of everything from seabirds to tuna and would constitute a marine reserve four times the size of the Papahanaumokuakea, leaving Bush a nonpareil legacy of marine conservation.

What’s in a nothingburger?

But last week, James L. Connaughton, chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and the presidential advisor in charge of the project, told the environmentalists he had been working with for a year that the recommendation he planned to submit to the sub-cabinet next week, the cabinet the following week and the president around Christmas, was to just extend no-fishing zones from three to 12 miles offshore.

“It would be a nothingburger,” said one of the environmentalists, who asked not to be identified so as not to harm the project’s chances and who just a week earlier was expressing confidence that the 200-mile option was likely to be adopted. “It will have almost no effect on anything.”

“After all the work they put in, it was like the elephant that gives birth to a mouse,” said another.

But the project’s proponents are not giving up, because Bush has a record of boldness on this matter. After six years of nudging forward efforts to turn the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands into a giant marine reserve, Bush eventually lost patience with an opposition engineered largely by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who had previously used his clout to prevent President Bill Clinton from designating the islands a national monument. Once a Republican governor was installed in Honolulu and threw her support behind the designation, Bush cut short the cumbersome process and signed the National Monument proclamation in June 2006. In an interview that year, Connaughton said he had been “delighted” with the president’s move. A short, jovial man with a striking resemblance to Karl Rove, Connaughton is known for his optimistic outlook that conservation measures can be implemented without harming business interests.

“That time, the bureaucracy was dragging its feet and Connaughton was on Bush’s side,” said one of the environmentalists. “This time, Connaughton is playing the role of the bureaucracy.” Also opposed are recreational fishermen, who fear that losing their privileges in remote areas could set a precedent for losing them in populated areas.

One of the environmentalists involved wondered aloud whether Connaughton was simply testing their reaction. But if Connaughton does make his recommendation, the sponsors of the national monument hope history will repeat itself and Bush, when he realizes that Connaughton’s version of his Blue Legacy would be no legacy at all, will overrule his aide and go for something memorably huge that would be closer to what the scientists recommend.

The case for conservation

The process started in September of last year, when at the behest of Connaughton, about eight environmental groups submitted lists of blue-water areas worthy of conservation. Several were located off the southern Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, and all were dropped from the list after fishing and oil lobbies raised objections. In one case, the recreational fishing lobby intervened and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana threatened to introduce a bill that would prevent any president from using federal funds to designate a national monument in his last two years of office. She withdrew the threat after that proposal was dropped, according to one of the environmentalists.

In the end, Connaughton’s office announced two finalists in August.

The first group, and the most interesting to science, are the islands of Maug, Asuncion and Uracus in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, which are just south of Iwo Jima, Japan. Their sponsor is the Pew Environmental Group, a part of the Pew Charitable Trusts that also helped persuade Bush to turn the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands into the Papahanaumokuakea monument.

The Marianas are rich in submerged volcanoes that put out much more gas than other submarine volcanoes, which leads to an exceptional diversity of life forms. Scientists say Maug in particular will be intensely studied in the future to understand how coral reacts to the acidification that is expected when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets absorbed into the oceans.

The waters of the proposed monument extend to the Marianas Trench, the deepest underwater canyon in the world, and to a group of seamounts that have more hydrothermal life than anywhere else, including the oldest living things on earth–bacteria–and the world’s first hydrothermal vent-dwelling fish.

Because the islands are small and the slopes steep, areas where fish can thrive are relatively small. But Saipan, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana’s main population center, is more 300 miles away, and its fishing fleet, mostly artisanal and subsistence-driven, stays within 20 miles of the coast, so the fish density in the northernmost islands is five times what it is in the inhabited ones, according to the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. “It wouldn’t be hard for a foreign company to partner with a local one in Saipan and come up and wipe out some of these fish populations,” says Rusty Brainard, chief of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Honolulu.

Conversely, a monument designation is likely to trigger the appearance of live-aboard dive ships that could bring recreational divers to explore these unique underwater sceneries.

The three tiny islands (the largest is one square mile), which have never been inhabited, are enshrined in the Marianas Commonwealth Constitution as nature reserves. The waters around them, up to 200 miles, are managed by the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council, known as Wespac, which are part of NOAA. If the monument is declared, they would lose jurisdiction to NOAA’s National Sanctuary System, which has a record of encouraging tourism and allowing limited fishing.

Marine biologists say the other islands under consideration, in the Central Pacific, matter for an

entirely different set of reasons. Howland, Baker, Palmyra, Kingman Reef and Jarvis–all National Wildlife Refuges with protected reefs, along with Johnston, Rose and Wake–have some of the biggest densities of corals and fish on the planet because the waters around them are unusually full of nutrients brought by upwelling currents. “Healthy reefs are much more resistant to global warming than damaged ones like we have in Hawai’i,” explains Jim Maragos, a veteran marine scientist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who has probably studied more Pacific reefs than anyone alive. “That’s why we need to preserve them and study them so we can figure out how to help the damaged ones survive.” He and others say the main reason reefs are dying, far ahead of pollution, is overfishing of herbivore fish like parrotfish that keep algae from overwhelming coral and make it more vulnerable to sudden spikes in temperature caused by global warming.

“Once these reefs die, they turn into rubble and the big storm waves will come right up to the shore and destroy people’s houses,” Maragos adds.

“If we don’t protect these places, it will be the end of true natural selection in the oceans,” adds Alan Friedlander of NOAA’s biogeography branch.

Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Wash., says the waters off all these islands contain hundreds of seamounts, which are underwater mountains teeming with life that are shallow enough to be fished–and destroyed–by trawlers. “The time to protect a place is before it’s exploited, not during or after,” he says.

“Usually the effect of marine protected areas on fish like tuna that travel all over the ocean is marginal,” adds Steven Gaines, an authority on marine reserves who heads the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But if the reserves are big enough, and now we could soon be getting into that area with multiple reserves, then you could start seeing increases in their populations.”

According to Cmdr. Mark Young, the chief enforcement officer of the U.S. Coast Guard in Honolulu, the tuna fishery in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean accounts for over half of the global catch. “This $3 billion industry is one of the few profitable fisheries remaining in the world,” he wrote in an e-mail, and is increasingly drawing poachers, notably from tuna fleets that overfished their own stocks until they collapsed.

Even the birds that nest on the islands–some of the few left in the world without people or rats–stand to gain from large-scale marine reserves around them, says Beth Flint, a senior ornithologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Most of these seabirds depend on tuna to drive schools of small fish to the surface where the birds can pick them off,” she says.

In addition, scientists say that such large no-take areas are bound to slow the decline of turtles, birds, dolphins and sharks that die for having bitten at baited hooks meant for tuna and billfish like swordfish or marlin.

Wespac’s long arm

Environmentalists say it’s no accident that the two groups of islands that survived the initial scrutiny of the Bush administration were the least fished. Hawai’i’s 123-ship long-liner fleet in the last quarter spent only four percent of its fishing effort in the proposed Central Pacific islands, NOAA figures show, and the waters off the northernmost Marianas, which have few tuna, are not fished at all. But that did not prevent aggressive pushback from Pacific marine conservationists’ old nemesis, Wespac, whose long-time executive director, Kitty Simonds, strongly opposes marine reserves. Wespac’s spokeswoman, Sylvia Spalding, declined to answer any questions, as did Simonds.

The National Marine Fisheries Service regulates the U.S. fishing industry, but regional policy usually originates at Wespac. The agency is tasked with protecting the interests of fishing companies as well as insuring these interests don’t result in the collapse of fish stocks, but it has presided over the rapid collapse of lobster stocks in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and a steep decline in the fish populations of the Main Hawaiian Islands, including valuable bottom-fish stocks. It has even issued commercial bottom-fishing and lobster fishing permits in the National Wildlife Refuges of Baker, Howland, Kingman, Jarvis, Johnston and Palmyra, in violation of federal laws that ban fishing there, says Maragos, the veteran Fish and Wildlife scientist.

Insiders say Wespac’s influence has been magnified by the unswerving support its advocacy has received from Inouye, who as the long-time co-chairman of the Commerce Committee, controls who in the Commerce Department, of which NOAA is a part, gets funding and who does not. Next year, Inouye will step down to become chairman of the even more powerful Appropriations Committee.

In Saipan, where tourism, still the main industry, has fallen from 700,000 to 400,000 visitors a year in 10 years, the Hotel Association and the Chamber of Commerce have endorsed the monument. “Almost no one is able to enjoy these islands at this time,” wrote Lynn Knight, chairwoman of the association, in a letter to Bush, while monument status would “boost the local economy in promoting ecotourism.”

In contrast, the governor and most of the legislature have voiced their opposition to what they call “The Pew Monument” in language that strikingly resembles Wespac’s stinging criticism of the creation of the Papahanaumokuakea monument.

Andrew Salas, a former member of the Marianas House of Representatives, said that without Wespac’s intense lobbying, “There would have been a bit of grumbling because relations between the Marianas government and the federal government are pretty bad these days, but that’s it, because the overwhelming majority of the people support the monument.”

The Saipan connection

In Saipan, much of the political elite has ties to Wespac. The governor’s chief of staff, Ray Mafnas, is a senior Wespac official. Arnold Palacios, Speaker of the House, is a former member of the Wespac council. He wrote in a letter to Bush that the “loss of control over such a vast area of land and water is an assault on the traditions and culture of the islands.” The man he appointed as chairman of the House Federal Relations Committee, Representative Diego Benavente, who engineered the approval of two anti-monument resolutions, is also president of the Saipan Fishermen’s Association. Last year, it received a $150,000 grant from Wespac to open a store to sell its catch. It closed two months after it opened because of unexpected expenses “like utilities, rent, and salaries,” the local press reported. Benavente was quoted as saying, “We ran out of money, basically.” Asked where the money had gone, Wespac officials declined to comment.

Juan Borja Tudela, the mayor of Saipan, where most of the Marianas’ 65,000 people live, pleads that the monument waters should be left under the control of Wespac, which he calls “much more sensitive to the Pacific Islanders’ way of life.”

Wespac vice-chairman, Manny Duenas, head of a fishermen’s group in Guam, goes further in his own letter to Bush. “The taking of our marine resources may be construed as being no different than cattle rustling” and it would “serve as a springboard to ensure the cultural genocide of a people,” he wrote.
Similarities in style between anti-monument letters from Saipan and from Wespac-affiliated officials in Hawai’i have led some monument proponents to wonder if all were drafted at 1164 Bishop Street, the agency’s seat.

In another letter, the Marianas’ first lady, Josie Fitial, wrote to Laura Bush, a strong backer of a large and robust monument, “The success we have in ocean conservation is an excellent example of the international image that you want the U.S. to portray to the world in regard to exemplary ocean management.”

On the same day that excerpts from her letter were printed in the Saipan Tribune, the other daily, Marianas Variety, reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had filed suit against the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. to get it to stop discharging wastewater with illegal amounts of bacteria, lead and copper into the sea. The lawsuit alleged that the federal agency had been trying to correct the situation since 2000 and it seeks to get the utility to also clean up the supply of drinking water, which “is a present threat to the public,” an assistant U.S. attorney was quoted as saying.

by Christopher Pala / 12-10-2008

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