By George Russell
Published September 13, 2016
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U.S. fishing boats that are crewed by undocumented foreign fishermen are docked at Pier 38 in Honolulu, on May 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)
American fishermen are deeply fearful that the Obama White House could cut them off as early as this week from major fishing areas of the U.S. continental shelf on both coasts, further restricting one of the most highly regulated fishing industries in the world.
At stake are millions of dollars in fishing revenue and hundreds of jobs -- and in some parts of the country, the survival of an embattled way of life that has persisted for centuries but is facing environmentalist pressures unlike anything before -- and without the chance for hearings and legislative back-and-forth that U.S. laws normally require.
“This totally affects us, but we don’t know what’s going on,” one fishing boat owner, who asked to remain anonymous, told Fox News. “We are just out of the loop. No one even wants to say what effect it will have.”
“They are throwing all fishermen under the bus, along with their supporting industries” declared Marty Scanlon, a fishing boat owner and member of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries advisory panel on highly migratory fish species in the Atlantic. “They’ve done everything they can to put us out of business.”
What the fishermen fear most is the kind of unilateral action by the White House that they have already seen elsewhere. As part of their ongoing environmental ambitions, the Obama administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, and the president himself, are aggressively interested in creating preservation zones that would ban fishing and other activities within large portions of the 200-mile U.S. “exclusive economic zone” of maritime influence, and just as interested in getting other nations to do so, in their own as well as international waters.
That aim, supported by many important environmental groups, is cited as urgently required for protection against diminishing biodiversity, overfishing and damage to coral and unique underwater geological features -- not to mention the fact that with only a few months remaining in his term, the president sees such sweeping gestures as part of his legacy of achievements, and as the boat owner put it, “the window is narrowing” for the administration to act.
As one result, pressure from lobbying campaigns both for and against new declarations of such no-go zones both along the U.S. northeastern Atlantic coast and the coast of California have been mounting.
So has, apparently, behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get influential Democratic legislators to support such new preservation areas publicly -- a tough call, since the affected fishermen are also constituents. So far, many of the Democrats are keeping a low profile.
One exception has been U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut -- whose state does not loom as a major fishing center -- who earlier this month vocally nominated an area he called the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts for preservation status.
Blumenthal was backed by some 40 environmental groups -- but not by many of his neighboring Democratic Senate colleagues. Fox News emails to a number of Democratic Senate offices regarding the issue went unacknowledged prior to this story’s publication.
A more specific trigger for the nervousness in fishing communities is the upcoming September 15 start of a two-day, State Department -- sponsored Our Ocean conference, which has among other ambitions the extension of marine preserves across greater areas of the world’s oceans.
More than 35 foreign ministers of various countries are expected to attend, and according to a State Department official, build on previous meetings that garnered international pledges of nearly $4 billion for ocean “conservation activities” globally, and also pledged to “safeguard nearly 6 million square kilometers” -- 2.3 million square miles -- “of ocean in Marine Protected Areas” -- essentially, natural parks for marine life.
As the fishermen are well aware, two years ago President Obama dramatically kick-started the first-ever Our Ocean session by expanding the Remote Islands Marine National Monument by about 600 percent. He created a 140,000 square mile marine protected area northwest of the Hawaiian islands in which all commercial fishing and deep sea mining was banned.
Last month, Obama upped the ante once more. He expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a protected area west and north of his native state, to the edges of the U.S. 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The latest move created a 582,578 square mile preserve that is about double the size of Texas and West Virginia combined -- and roughly a quarter of all the protected waters that the State Department claims its Our Ocean conference process has so far achieved.
According to Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council -- a joint federal, state and private sector agency set up under U.S. law to prevent overfishing and manage fisheries stocks in that region -- “someone sent us an embargoed press release” about the latest expansion a day before the announcement was made public.
Simonds, whose agency had previously called for a “public, transparent, deliberative, documented and science-based process” in advance of the proposed monument expansion, called it “unbelievable that the government is kicking U.S. fishermen out of U.S. waters when the fishery is healthy.” Simonds and a coalition of local supporters are willing to live with the expanded preserve so long as it still allowed fishing under the supervision of the existing management authorities.
Otherwise, she says, the restriction would force U.S. fishing vessels -- about 145 of them -- into international waters to make their catches, where they would compete against fleets from China, South Korea and Indonesia, among others, “that have lower fishing standards.” The move would also, she charged, increase fish imports -- currently about 92 percent of consumption -- rather than lower demand for seafood.
The fishermen point out that in terms of many larger food fish, such as tuna, the preserve areas are meaningless. The bigger fish roam oceans worldwide, and the long-line equipment used to catch them does not damage coral reefs or the fragile ocean bottom.
The monument designation also over-rode a 40-year-old, federally legislated process of managing fish stocks in all U.S. waters by means of fishery management councils like the Western Pacific agency. Eight councils were established around the country to manage fishing resources under legislation now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act after its congressional sponsors.
The councils are hardly passive when it comes to conservation issues, and have prohibited a variety of restrictive fishing practices, as well as placing monitors on board fishing vessels to make sure catch rules are enforced.
Nonetheless, they did not speak to the kind of sweeping, surface-to-sea-bottom environmental protections, including for coral formations and deep sea habitats, that the marine preserve supporters, including President Obama had sought -- even though opponents argue that fisheries management councils have even taken such issues as coral protection into consideration.
Just as in the administration’s 2014 action, the recent Pacific expansion announcement preceded an international meeting, this time with Pacific island leaders alongside the world congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the world’s most prestigious environmental organizations.
Obama attended the Honolulu session and told his audience at the start of the IUCN meeting that “Teddy Roosevelt gets the credit for starting the National Parks system, but when you include a big chunk of the Pacific Ocean, we now have actually done more acreage than any other president.”
What worries the fishermen is Obama’s Big Stick -- the American Antiquities Act of 1906, a statute signed into law by Teddy Roosevelt that allows the president by decree to set aside “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”
George W. Bush first used the act to set aside Pacific marine preserves related to World War II. But Barack Obama has used it at sea to create much more vast environmental sanctuaries, an approach widely advocated at home and internationally by major non-profit organizations like the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Resources Defense Council.
The point of the upcoming Our Ocean meeting is to push those oceanic priorities even further, not only in terms of marine preservation areas but in expansive measures to combat illegal fishing, clean up pollution -- including masses of ocean debris -- and create further partnerships, both public and private, to carry on the effort.
CLICK HERE FOR THE MEETING WEBSITE
As the conference website declares: “The world has agreed [via the United Nations-sponsored Sustainable Development Goals] to a target of conserving at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, including through effectively managed protected areas, by 2020. Through the Our Ocean conferences, we seek to help achieve and even surpass this goal.”
About specific additional maritime preserves, however, a State Department official queried by Fox News on the issue remained closed-mouthed.
“Many nations will be making announcements at the conference related to MPAs,” he said. “I do not have specific information about those at this time.”
The hush-hush also covers the past. An interactive map on the Our Ocean conference website promises to show “the impact of prior commitments,” on the world’s oceans, but revealed nothing at the time this story was published.