By Haidee V. Eugenio, Reporter. Reprinted here from the Saipan Tribune, March 15, 2011.
House minority leader Diego T. Benavente (R-Saipan) is asking his fellow lawmakers to consider not supporting the lifting of a net fishing ban on Saipan as proposed by House Bill 17-136, citing its negative impacts on the CNMI people, the economy, and sustainability of the islands' natural resources.
“Contrary to HB 17-136's intentions for providing assistance in an economically stressed time, passage of this bill would only hurt our economic conditions even further,” Benavente said in his three-page “dear colleague letter.”
He asked his colleagues to return HB 17-136 to the Natural Resources Committee for further investigation, allow for proper public comment and presentation of scientific input before allowing the bill to be placed on the agenda for vote.
Benavente, a fisherman for over 20 years, said that lifting the net fishing ban is a step backward for the CNMI's efforts to increase its fish stock since banning net fishing more than 10 years ago.
“Adding any increased fishing pressure now will only send us backwards, further reducing the stocks and resulting in fewer fish very fast. Until scientific data shows us that we are clear from the dangerous impact of surround net or any type of net fishing, we cannot in good conscience allow this to resume,” Benavente said, citing a January 2011 report on the Marianas Archipelago Fishery Ecosystem Plan.
Benavente is also the author of the law that bans shark finning in the CNMI, earning the Commonwealth international accolades for its shark conservation efforts.
HB 17-136, introduced by Rep. Sylvester Iguel (Cov-Saipan), said that, although the net fishing ban was created for conservation purposes, it is necessary to take into consideration the economic crisis that people now face.
His proposal is to lift the net fishing ban on Saipan for only five years, and only for subsistence purposes and not for commercial fishing.
“Any sales or distribution beyond one's immediate family shall be a violation of this law,” said Iguel.
Iguel said many government employees are now subjected to unpaid holidays and 16-hour cut per payroll, while private sector employees are also faced with similar work hour cuts and even furloughs. He also cited the increasing utility costs and fuel prices.
But Benavente said surround net and other net fishing are, by design, a way to catch large volumes of fish.
“It is an insult to the intelligence of our people to suggest that these volumes would not be sold commercially and only be allowed for non-commercial, subsistence purposes. In fact, allowing the passage of 17-136 will only benefit a handful of people and potentially open our resources to further exploitation by outside sources, even if unintentionally,” he said.
Benavente said being a fisherman since his younger years, he can personally attest to the decline in the fish population. He said when he was a boy, there was an abundance of fish and all forms of fishing were permitted.
His father was the first to introduce the Okinawan style of gill net fishing and to bring Okinawan fishermen to Saipan to work for him.
“Using the Okinawan fishermen and hiring local fishermen, he was able to run his market successfully seven days a week. In fact, I followed in his steps buying boats, running a market’ and selling our daily catch for more than 20 years. Today, our fish stocks are depleted, my boat is sold and my fish market is closed,” he said.
Over 10 years ago, Benavente supported the passage of the original Fair Fishing Act, which banned net fishing and Scuba spear fishing “because we could plainly see the obvious decline in our fish populations” and the damage in coral reefs and the lagoon.
The CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife conducted a study in 2004 to 2007 with data results showing that the number of fish is increasing and their sizes are bigger compared with data from the time before the Fair Fishing Act was implemented.
Benavente said he would also counter any reports or suggestions by the Western Regional Fisheries Management Council that the CNMI's fishing resources are underutilized.
He said WRFMC's model or their use of mathematics is based on total resources from Rota all the way to Uracas, which cannot provide accurate information by which to gauge the individual islands' resources.
“Perhaps some of our neighboring islands can withstand additional fishing pressure, but the scientific evidence is clear for Saipan and that we cannot afford to allow a return to any type of net fishing practices at this time,” he added.