Championing Ocean Conservation Or Paying Lip Service to the Seas?
WASHINGTON, Sep 27 2014 (IPS) — President Barack Obama this week extended the no-fishing areas around three remote pacific islands, eliciting praise from some, and disappointment from those who fear the move did not go far enough towards helping depleted species of fish recover.
Last June, Obama had proposed to end all fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of five islands, effectively doubling the surface of the world’s protected waters. But on Thursday, he only closed the three where little or no fishing goes on, making the measure, according to some experts, largely symbolic: the Wake Atoll, north of the Marshall Islands; Johnson Atoll, southwest of Hawaii; and Jarvis, just south of the Kiribati Line Islands.
Fishing of fast-diminishing species like the Pacific bigeye tuna was allowed to continue around Howland and Baker, which abut Kiribati’s 408,000 square km Phoenix Islands Protected Area, and Palmyra in the U.S. Line Islands.
“If we don’t have the fortitude to protect marine biodiversity in these easy-win situations, that says a lot about our commitment to oceans." -- Doug McCauley, a marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara
Many press reports said Obama had created the largest marine reserve in the world. In fact, he would have done that only if he had closed the waters around Howland and Baker. Since these waters adjoin Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area, itself due to be closed to commercial fishing soon, the two together would have created a refuge of 850,000 square km, twice the size of California.
The biggest marine reserve in the world remains around the Indian Ocean’s Chagos Islands, which Britain closed in 2010, at 640,000 square km. Scientists say that to allow far-traveling species like tuna, shark and billfish, protected areas need to be in that range.
But after fishing fleets in Hawaii and American Samoa protested, Obama backtracked and allowed fishing to continue unabated in the two areas that have the most fish, Palmyra and Howland and Baker.
“We missed a unique opportunity to do something important for the oceans,” said Doug McCauley, a marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “I can’t think of anywhere in the world that could be protected and inconvenience fewer people than Palmyra and Howland and Baker.” According to official statistics, only 1.7 percent of the Samoa fleet’s catch and four percent of Honolulu’s comes from those areas.
“If we don’t have the fortitude to protect marine biodiversity in these easy-win situations, that says a lot about our commitment to oceans,” added McCauley.
On Thursday, Obama extended by about 90 percent the no-fishing zones in the waters around Jarvis, south of Palmyra and outside the range of the Hawaii fleet: Wake, which is not fished at all and lies west of Hawaii, and Johnston, south of Hawaii but far from the so-called equatorial tuna belt where the biggest numbers of fish live.
The three are more than 1,000 kilometers apart from each other and their newly protected waters add up to about one million square km.
“That’s a lot of water,” said Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation institute in Seattle, who had campaigned for the closures. “Obama has protected more of the ocean than anyone else.”
Morgan pointed out that it was in his sixth year (as is Obama now) that President George W. Bush created the first large U.S. marine national monument around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and it was in the closing days of Bush’s second term that he created several others in U.S. overseas possessions, including the five in the Central Pacific.
“Podesta said Obama’s signing pen still has some ink left in it, and I hope he’ll use it,” Morgan added, referring to a remark White House Counselor John Podesta made to journalists last week.
Bush, like Obama, had also initially proposed to protect the whole EEZ of the Central Pacific islands, but after fishing companies and the U.S. Navy objected, he ended up limiting the marine national monument designation to only the areas within 90 km of the islands.
The move protected the largely pristine and unfished reefs but left the rest of the EEZ open to U.S. fishermen. This time, a source familiar with the process told IPS, the Navy had made no objections to Obama’s original proposal to close the whole EEZ of the five zones.
But Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Honolulu Western Pacific Fishery Management Advisory Board, a leading voice in Hawaii’s fishing industry, had vigorously opposed the proposed closures, telling IPS, “U.S fishermen should be able to fish in U.S. zones.”
Obama’s declaration that turns the whole EEZ (out from 90 km to 340 km) around Wake, Jarvis and Johnston into marine national monuments notes they “contain significant objects of scientific interest that are part of this highly pristine deep sea and open ocean ecosystem with unique biodiversity.”
But the declaration does not mention that overfishing in the last decades has reduced the tropical Pacific population of bigeye tuna, highly prized as sushi, to 16 percent of its original population, while the yellowfin is down to 26 percent. About 80 percent of the tuna caught by Hawaii’s long-line fleet is bigeye. The stocks of tuna are even more depleted outside the Western and Central Pacific.
“In a well-managed fishery, you would stop fishing and rebuild the stock,” said Glenn Hurry, who recently stepped down as head of the international tuna commission that manages the five-billion-dollar Pacific fishery.
The fishery’s own scientists have called for reducing the bigeye catch by 30 percent, but the catch has only grown. Honolulu’s catch of bigeye was a record last year.
“It’s too bad these areas (Palmyra and Howland and Baker) weren’t closed,” said Patrick Lehodey, a French fisheries scientist who studies Pacific tuna. Absent a reduction in catch, he said, “Our simulations showed that to help the bigeye recover, you need to close a really big area near the tuna belt.”
Edited by Kanya D’Almeida